The International Labour Organization (ILO) Project on the Future of Work

If Pogo had been there he might have said “I have been to seek the future and it is here.”

ILO Director General Guy Ryder, at a roundtable in Ottawa hosted by the Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy ( stated ” If we believe the future of work will be a slow process of change to which our institutions can adapt, then we are making a mistake. We will see it within the next decade.” The ILO sees the transformation of work and big change coming fast. Ryder introduced participants to a new project on the future of work. The ILO will develop four “conversations” in an effort to understand the underlying drivers of change, and will then appoint a world commission to define the key issues, and recommend policy measures.

Charles Handy saw some of this coming in 1984 (The Future of Work). He said that the idea of employment as a lifetime job was disappearing, and that future workers would have a portfolio of skills and services that they would sell or trade for various kinds of payment.

Closer to the new era was Robert Reich’s 1992 book, The Work of Nations. (He was to become Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labour.) Reich might almost be said to be placing a conceptual bookend to an era defined some 216 years earlier by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Smith talked about concepts like productivity and the factors which contributed to national wealth, in the context of the industrial revolution and the evolution of the nation-state as the dominant form of governance. Reich, in effect, predicted the end of the “nation” as the governing, or even analytical, framework for the economy. He suggested that capital, corporations, supply chains, and eventually, the cadre of workers who would thrive in a borderless economy, would become globally mobile. “Symbolic analysts,” the people who work with concepts and information, would work and form their friendships and communities globally, and would not know the people they meet in the street, rooted in low level production and personal service jobs.

It seems now, according to the ILO, that both were right to predict that “employment” would gradually become an outmoded term, and that work, and the pay associated with it, would become more and more of a short term contract or payment for service, and become more insecure. Guy Standing (formerly ILO now at University of London) calls the emerging work force a “precariat”, characterized by precarious work arrangements. (2011, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class)

The statistics “sort of” confirm this. While about three quarters of work arrangements in advanced economy countries still are categorized as standard employment, the newer work forms are more likely not standard employment. There are more self-employed or “own account” workers. More jobs are part-time or temporary, or are contractual arrangements. And market earnings – from jobs, contracts, investments, etc are becoming much more unequal. If it were not for the redistributive effects of the welfare state, the inequality of the new economy would be blatant and brutal. Countries – nations – are trying to keep their societies together using policy instruments developed during the industrial period, but are gradually losing their grip on their own economies.

The ILO conversation topics are:

Work and society:

What is the place and function of work in the future and how will it differ from what we know?

Where are the jobs of the future?

There is not currently enough work for everyone in the world, and not enough new jobs are being created for the forty million new people entering the world labour force every year. The ILO has identified a large and growing “jobs gap” wherein increased production and consumption is not translating into proportionate increases in jobs and wages. Within fifteen to twenty years it is possible that half of the population will not have gainful employment. Our societies and public policies are organized around the concept of employment for earning a living, supporting public services, saving for the future, providing family security. Will we need to reinvent the economic underpinnings of society?

The organization of work and the role of the enterprise.

Global enterprises are moving away from a traditional role of employer. They buy products and services as part of constantly-shifting supply chains which cut across national jurisdictions. Global business interests, capital and technology make a powerful combination with the potential to destroy economies and labour markets.

The governance of work.

How is social solidarity and social justice achieved in a world of insecure and precarious work? If the policy instruments of national governments are inadequate to govern the distribution and conditions of work, are other forms of governance required?

Ryder also refers to “a kind of institutional myopia” which assumes that developing economies will follow the path of advanced economies with increasing regularization of work, improving labour standards, and formalized employment relationships. “But that won’t happen.” Even though several emerging economies have to some extent followed this path, indications are that the paths are now diverging.

The World Commission on the Future of Work will make its report in June 2019. (Seems rather a long time given the urgency conveyed by Ryder.) The ILO has a certain advantage in undertaking this task, in that it is governed by a tripartite (Employer/Worker/Government) body. On the other hand its worker representation is union-dominated, which means it connects only with a declining minority of unionized workers – now about 28% in Canada and 11% in the USA. European rates vary from the high 60’s in Scandinavian countries to 7 and 17% in France and Germany. But almost all are declining. (OECD Employment Database).

The challenge for national governments is stark. They are already experiencing a declining influence on their “national economies” as they compete among each other for investment and growth. Their national income tax systems are at risk in face of tax havens and massive tax avoidance by global corporations. And trade agreements are eliminating national policies to protect domestic industry while opening up more and more mobility options for workers. Not only is work at risk, but the nation state itself may be weakening as a form of governance.

If changes are in store for the governance of work, what could they be? Should we envisage an expanded role for international trade agreements, incorporating more international labour standards? Perhaps there will be an emergence of new agreements on worker representation and support? Perhaps a further evolution of European processes of national level negotiating of employer and worker interests, into the international sphere?

Or maybe governance will shift more to a local base, back toward the city-state. In North America, states and provinces are dominant players in labour standards, despite having even less influence on their economies. But as mobile as people are, they have to live somewhere at any given time. So perhaps we will see more development of municipal and city governance of quality of life, including labour standards and taxation.

It will be interesting to follow the ILO project, and very likely similar initiatives in other institutions. This is a serious issue and the stakes are high. Global business can bring amazing poverty reduction as we have seen. It can also destroy the economic underpinning of the nation state. It will be a real test of nations and internationalism. Good luck ILO.


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