ILO’s “Work for a Brighter Future”: a spring of hope for working people

Today marks the launch of the International Labour Organization (ILO) centenary year and with it the publication of a landmark ILO report on the future of work. Fifteen months ago an ILO Global Commission was established, chaired by Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, to consider the future of work. From the outset there was an ambition to produce a report to change thinking, policy and action; this is reflected in the title of the Commission report: Work for a Brighter Future.

Exactly 160 years ago the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities was published, and its opening lines resonate today: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Fast forward to today: the 2018 International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Poll confirms a winter of despair when over 75 per cent of respondents state that they struggle financially, that they fear job loss, that minimum wages are insufficient and that the economic system favours the wealthy and that their kids will be worse off than they are. The ITUC Global Union Rights Index confirmed a season of darkness for freedom of association, collective bargaining and violence against union members where attacks are on the up.

The Commission took these and other key trends into account: from the 200 million unemployed, 300 million workers surviving on a few dollars a day, almost half the workforce in vulnerable jobs, 150 million children at work, rising inequality, persistent gender inequality, the ravages of climate change, demographic change, digital transformation, billions with inadequate social protection and the ascendancy of the economic power of business with the pendulum swinging far away from workers.

To avoid the risk of the report being ignored, the Commission calls for every member state of the ILO to get national tripartite talks underway to thrash out a national action plan on the implementation of the report’s recommendations and to report to the ILO accordingly. It is vital that unions everywhere make this happen. The Commission, with calls to action to governments, business and unions, has left no room for excuses. The Global Commission has come up with a plan and many ideas.

Martin Luther King said: “We are faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the urgency of now.” There is nothing complacent in the tone of the Commission’s report; it is not sending a reassuring message to the world.

The report rejects business as usual. It calls for a change in the rules to deliver a reinvigorated social contract. It recognises that trade unions have a key role to play, that our ideas are part of the solution to cope with change, that unions are key contributors to building a new social contract.

The report sends a warning to the political and business world that unless we make the readjustments required to bring about a reinvigorated social contract, then economic and social divides will grow. The despair of economic insecurity brings with it the danger that this will further fuel the populist wave.

“The gap between the wealthy and everyone else is widening...many of our societies are becoming more unequal…millions of workers are disenfranchised, deprived of fundamental rights and unable to make their voices heard...rising insecurity and uncertainty fuel isolationism and populism,” states the report

The frustration with a world that seems to have turned its back on social and economic progress for workers is captured as follows: “...without decisive action we will be sleepwalking into a world that widens inequality, increases uncertainty and reinforces exclusion, with destructive political, social and economic repercussions.” The report sends a very clear and uncompromising message: without social justice, lasting peace and stability is endangered.

Labour is not a commodity

The starting point for future policy thinking was the observation that social contracts are not inclusive enough and that it is necessary to look back to the reasons why the ILO came into existence in the first place. From the ashes of war, revolution, misery and dreadful exploitation of working people, the Commission was struck by the ILO’s founding constitution, which they concluded, “remains the most ambitious global social contract in history”.

They want that contract rebuilt. The Commission was struck by the 1944 ILO Declaration of Philadelphia, which marked the post-war direction of the ILO, when it stated that: “Labour is not a commodity”. The Commission’s attention was drawn to the repeated declarations of the G20 that we must not leave people behind.

It was the worry of many that we are indeed witnessing the commodification of labour, where the right of workers to pursue their material well-being and spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, economic security and equal opportunity is not being met today. In short, the social contract lies in tatters.

The Commission, in reflecting on this state of affairs, observes “that the absence of a social contract is to the detriment of all” and calls for a new approach “that puts people and the work they do at the centre of public policy and business practice: a human-centred agenda for the future of work”.

It takes a swipe at Big Tech and the new digital platform business models, which “could create 19th-century working practices and future generations of digital day labourers”.

The Commission has a clear vision for a “reinvigorated social contract” which is aimed at “renewing the democratic underpinnings of our labour markets and strengthening social dialogue, giving everyone a voice in shaping the changes underway and the quality of their working lives”.

The “Uberisation”-like business models are given a bloody nose as the Commission recognises the employment relationship as the key to labour protection and goes further in saying that delivering a social contract “means guaranteeing fundamental rights at work, ensuring that all workers are afforded adequate labour protection and actively managing technology to ensure decent work”. The Commission is bold in its call for a Universal Labour Guarantee (ULG) and a universal social protection floor from birth to old age for all workers.

The policy framework; the spring of hope

The report recommendations identify three pillars of action as follows: investing in people’s capabilities, investing in the institutions of work and investing in decent and sustainable work. The plan demands that the world of work become central to government action on the future functioning of our economies. The Commission report is a warning against leaving matters to market forces. Whilst many would have liked the report to go further, it does call for business reform from companies, serving beyond just shareholder interests, moving away from short-termism and stressing the need to broaden stakeholder presence in business decision making, and pointing out the need for business to pay its fair share of taxes.

The report expresses the concern that those who lose their jobs in the transition may be the least equipped to seize the new opportunities – that skills today will not match the jobs of tomorrow – and hence the call for an entitlement to lifelong learning. There is the need to reconfigure the system to provide workers with the time and financial support they need to learn, and to introduce employment insurance to allow workers to take paid leave to engage in training. Digital training possibilities must be anchored in access to universal quality education, delivered by well-trained and well-paid teachers.

The report recognises that people have to be supported through transitions through active labour market policies, where we see woeful levels of investment, and that in each sector of the economy unions and employers should be negotiating transition agreements to provide for “early intervention, counselling and financial support”.

In the disruptive transitions ahead, it underlines that “collective bargaining plays a key role in building resilience and adaptation”.

The report underlines and details a transformative Agenda for Gender Equality, including a reference to the successful conclusion to the talks for an ILO standard against violence and harassment at work. The report calls for specific initiatives for youth and for older workers to enable a lifelong active society.

The report makes a clear call for governments to guarantee universal social protection for all workers from birth to old age. Social protection must cover all workers including the self-employed. The report calls for continued protection for workers in all job circumstances.

The report is clear that there has been a neglect of the institutions of work, which it sees as “the building blocks of just societies and includes laws, regulations, employment contracts, employers and worker organisations, collective agreements and labour inspection”. The Commission makes a welcome call to strengthen and revitalise institutions governing work, which are considered a “public good”.

The Commission recommends the establishment of a Universal Labour Guarantee (ULG) to apply to all workers whatever their contractual arrangements or employment status. The ULG is to include fundamental rights and basic working conditions. The ULG is to be further built on through collective bargaining.

Those fundamental rights need to include the recognition of a new fundamental right to health and safety at work.

The Commission calls for more time sovereignty, admits that millions would like to work more hours than those offered, and calls for the right to digitally disconnect, for measures to provide workers with a guaranteed and predictable number of hours, for work schedules to be negotiated and premium pay for those working inconvenient hours. There is no place here for zero-hour contracts.

Collective bargaining: the critical component

The Commission recognises that collective representation through social dialogue is a public good that “lies at the heart of democracy”. A policy shift is required to recognise that “collective bargaining is a fundamental right and powerful tool for economic success and social equity”.

The Commission recognises that the growth in income inequality can be addressed by investing in wage-setting institutions “where current policies have fallen short”, and that wage policies need to be “revitalised, through appropriate statutory minimum and collectively bargained wages”. All workers must enjoy freedom of association and the effective recognition of collective bargaining.

The report calls for business models to be aligned to a human-centred agenda for the future of work.

In effect, it puts a question to employers old and, particularly, to the new, to put their “social contract” house in order, to build respect for fundamental rights, to build a social dialogue and to recognise the right of workers to join unions and to negotiate. Taken together, these recommendations form a due diligence test for employers, and it is useful that reference is made in the report to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The Commission develops what amounts to a “digital social contract” with several elements for, e.g., an end to gender bias in AI and for an AI where “humans are in command”; for regulations to ensure data privacy and its use, and algorithmic accountability; and it welcomes the attempts by authorities to examine the business concentration consequences in the tech sector. Particular attention is called to the evidence – for example, the strike of 30,000 workers at Google against gender bias and harassment – that business models in the digital economy are perpetuating gender gaps, and recommends the adoption of specific measures to ensure equal opportunity and equal treatment of women in the technology-enabled jobs of the future.

The Commission breaks new ground with the recommendation to develop an international governance system for digital labour platforms that sets and requires platforms to respect minimum rights and protections and looks to the 2006 ILO Maritime Convention as a model. In effect, it calls time on the misclassification of workers, and, as with platform regulation and the universal labour guarantee, the Commission wants to see efforts to secure their urgent operationalisation.

Policy coherence for jobs for tomorrow; ILO future

The report ties in its recommendations to the implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and recalls that the international community has embraced the goal of full employment and decent work for all. The report expresses concerns over the threats to multilateralism, and to help turn the tide recommends, in particular, “the establishment of more systemic and substantive working relations between the WTO, the Bretton Woods institutions and the ILO”. It makes an appeal for more policy coherence to bring about human-centred growth and points out that “trade and financial policies are important means to the material welfare and spiritual development of the person through decent work”.

The report identifies where there are rich job-creating opportunities where the world needs to invest, for example, in care, in mitigation of climate change, in rural and agricultural sustainability and in physical, digital and social infrastructures which include “high quality public services”.

Tens of millions of jobs stand to be created – and through a just transition. In deliberations, a call was also made to business to maintain employment, to not hire and fire and to invest in their workforces to keep people in work.

The report suggests urgent action to transform informal to formal work.

It tells governments to go beyond GDP in the measurement of economic progress to include unpaid work, to capture externalities of economic activities such as environmental degradation and healthcare costs, to include indicators of distribution and equity from household income and to include access to education, health and housing.

The report maps out an optimistic future for the ILO and its task to bring about the brighter future of work. It is an admission that our policies and institutions need a shake up to ensure that people are not left behind. There is a warning about digital transformation racing ahead of our ability to deal with the consequences. The ILO should continue its standard-setting role, bolster tripartism, be at the centre of the policy crossroads to shape the future of work, to establish an innovation lab and to create an expert monitoring group to analyse trends and contribute to policy development. The UN system should be the motor of the just transition measures to bring a better world of work.

The call for transition agreements in economic sectors provides new opportunities for the ILO sector programme. With the global trends identified, it is also the time for the ILO to invest resources to develop cross-border dialogue and the promotion of core labour standards in supply chains where the experience of the Bangladesh Accord will be most useful.

In conclusion, there are many constructive avenues to pursue emerging from the report. It is important that unions demand involvement in the elaboration of national action plans. There is much in this report to help people through the coming transformation. The report will be considered by the ILO governing body and during the ILC in June. There will be intense deliberations on the ILO Centenary Declaration, which has to reach the heights of the Declaration of Philadelphia.

This article only skims through the major themes, so unions are requested to give the report their fullest attention. It is important to mobilise around its practical follow-up, and the ITUC will make this happen.

From A Tale of Two Cities to a tale of two worlds of work, policy inaction will mean a season of darkness for the many. This report provides the seeds for a “spring of hope” for working people.