ILO pursuing "human-centered" approach to future of work

The International Labour Organisation wants to avoid the "trap of technological determination" and ensure people are at the centre of its approach to the future of work, according to its deputy director-general, Greg Vines.

Vines, an Australian administrator and IR expert, says the ILO is working on a "human-centered" agenda for growth and development as it celebrates the centenary of its founding.

"The crucial point is the future of work can and must be an outcome of our own actions, of human interventions," Vines told a seminar at Monash Business School.

"If we don't realise this we might not only fail to come up with the right answers to the challenges facing us, but we might not even ask the right questions."

Vines, a Monash University alumni and fellow, says the ILO is looking to reaffirm and update the body's original mandate for the challenges of the 21st century to deal with "Globalisation 4.0".

A key part of this work is the ILO's Global Commission on the Future of Work which reported earlier this year and was co-chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven.

Ramaphosa is a former union leader, anti-apartheid activist and businessman.

Löfven was a welder and chaired the Swedish union IF Metall, before entering parliament and becoming leader of the Social Democratic Party.

Their report contended that global action is needed to meet the challenges arising from new technology, climate change and demographics and calls for a global response to the disruptions they are causing in the world of work.

It said that artificial intelligence, automation and robotics will lead to job losses, as skills become obsolete, but they also created new opportunities along with the "greening of economies."

"Countless opportunities lie ahead to improve the quality of working lives, expand choice, close the gender gap, reverse the damages wreaked by global inequality," the report said.

"Yet none of this will happen by itself.

"Without decisive action we will be sleepwalking into a world that widens existing inequalities and uncertainties."

Vines says the Global Commission on the Future of Work took into account other research that examined the impact of changing technology, but tried to "take a human-centered approach to the future of work."

"This means we've got to look at the future of work from the perspective of people, not from the perspective of technology.

"The report also calls for a 'human in command' approach that ensures that technology includes working lives, rather than reducing workers' control over work processes."

"We have only begun to consider how digital technologies can be used to monitor conditions of work, secure the payment of wages, ensure well being at work, and improve the functioning of labour markets."

The report's recommendations are grouped around three "pillars": greater investment in capabilities and skills and skills, the institutions of work and the creation of decent and sustainable jobs.

"Whilst we hear a lot of doom and gloom about the impact of technology, we've also got to consider the new jobs that are going to be created as we have that a transition to a carbon-neutral economy," Vines says.

"The jobs that are going to be created when we talk about the massive demographic changes across the world.

"In some areas it will new care jobs looking after the elderly, in others it will be new jobs providing support to young people."

Global Commission backs universal labour guarantee

The report's specific recommendations include:
  • introducing a universal labour guarantee that protects fundamental workers' rights, an adequate living wage, limits on hours of work and safe and healthy workplaces;
  • guaranteeing social protection from birth to old age;
  • providing a universal entitlement to lifelong learning that enables people to skill, reskill and upskill; and
  • managing technological change to boost decent work, including an international governance system for digital labour platforms.
Vines told the Monash seminar – attended by Emeritus Professor Joe Isaac and former FWC President Geoffrey Giudice – that the Global Commission aimed to produce a "short, concrete, political report" that provided "signposts for decisive action required by all stakeholders including governments, employers and unions".

He says there are growing global concerns over inequality and insecurity, along with public disillusion about the prospects for change.

"The international community is already tackling this task with the UN's 2030 agenda for sustainable development that emphasises inclusive growth, full employment and decent work.

"This is really the most pressing issue facing the world at the moment.

"Unless we've got sustainable work and decent work, you don't get peace and you don't get stability."

Vines says the right to education should be expanded and expressed as an entitlement to "life-long learning", backed by education and skills systems.

"Active labour market policies need to become pro-active, to support working people through the many transitions they can expect to go through."

More investment in "social protection systems" would help people embrace change rather than resist it, while the time had come for a "truly transformative agenda for gender equality."

Vines echoes the report in arguing that GDP alone is an "insufficient indicator of success" and broader measures are needed to capture the impact of work on the environment, unpaid work, equality and human wellbeing.

Australia in a "good place"

Vines said the conditions in the ILO's 187 member states vary widely and it might be better to refer to the futures of work in the plural rather than singular.

"Possibilities are different, ambitions are different and we need to be conscious of the diversity of the situation."

He is heartened by a meeting earlier this year in Canberra, which included the departments of Jobs and Small Business, Education and Foreign Affairs and Trade, along with the ACTU and ACCI.

Vines says Australia still has "much more" work to do around freedom of association and strengthening the role of employer groups and unions, but is generally on a "good path" that provided an example to many other countries.

The Global Commission report is due to be discussed at the ILO's centenary conference session in Geneva in June.

Vines argues the ILO is unique among global multilateral bodies in having a tripartite structure that includes governments, employers and unions, which requires dialogue and "horse-trading" between participants.

He said the Global Commission report on the future of work recommended that social dialogue be recognised as a public good.

"If you look at the history of the last 100 years while the ILO has been in existence, we came out of the First World War.

"We survived the Second World War, we worked with workers and employers right through the Cold War, and we're still doing that now with all of the turmoil all around the world.

"And I think the one consistent thing right through that 100 years that is shown to have worked, that is shown to have come with good economic and social policies, is social dialogue.

"By that I mean governments, workers and employers sitting down around the table and addressing these key issues."

Note: The article combines material from the Monash Business School seminar with a later interview (see below) of Greg Vines by Monash University's Professor Greg Bamber.