As a trade union leader, I am often asked about the impending catastrophic impact of technology on jobs. Are the more extreme estimates of job loss credible or is the reality more nuanced? Are we heading towards a data dystopia or on the road to a digital promised land?

In truth, nothing is written in stone. Technology itself will not determine the way forward. It’s all about the choices that governments, businesses, workers and their unions and societies as a whole make.

The accelerating march of digitalisation, robotics and a plethora of technological innovations will affect production, services and life in general - in ways that are hard to predict but which will surely be profound. The challenge is to make the right decisions, putting people at the centre and technology at the service of people.

There is a historic opportunity this year to launch a human-centred agenda for Globalization 4.0 and the future of work: the Centenary of the International Labour Organisation. At the ILO Conference in June, we expect to adopt an ILO Centenary Declaration, a milestone for the ILO itself, and something that will set out the high-level principles on how the world should shape Globalization 4.0.

Trade unions are calling for the Centenary Declaration to define the parameters of a new social contract between governments, businesses and workers, recognising that the future of production is not something that will be determined by technology, rather that it will be shaped by political, social and economic choices.

The context for these choices is indeed troubling. There are 300 million “working poor” – people who are in work but don’t earn enough to lift them out of poverty. Official unemployment globally is around 190 million people, with large numbers of younger people entering the labour market only to find there is no job for them. Around half the world’s working population is trapped in informal work, and many of those in formal work can only find precarious or temporary jobs. Global supply chains are contaminated by slavery, informality and jobs that frequently keep workers in poverty and expose them to disease or death. In addition, more than 40% of the world’s households do not have internet access, locking them out of the digital future. Then there are the impacts of climate change already devastating whole communities and depriving millions of people of their livelihoods, underlining the urgent need for ambitious action to keep the global temperature rise under 1.5%.

The discussion about the future needs to be based on these realities. And we should also take a look at how we got to where we are today. When the visionary leaders of 1919 created the ILO through the Treaty of Versailles, they had a very clear objective in mind: that the guarantee of social and economic justice would help prevent the conditions which could drive another conflict as destructive as World War I. That Treaty was the first iteration of the social contract, but the lofty intent was soon undermined, leading to the Great Depression just 10 years later followed by the catastrophe of another global conflict. Towards the end of that war, leaders had another go at the social contract. The ILO’s 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia, set out four principles for the world of work:
“labour is not a commodity; freedom of expression and of association are essential to sustained progress; poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere; and, the war against want requires to be carried on with unrelenting vigour within each nation, and by continuous and concerted international effort in which the representatives of workers and employers, enjoying equal status with those of governments, join with them in free discussion and democratic decision with a view to the promotion of the common welfare.”

These principles hold as true today as they did then, and provide the basis for managing change albeit in a world confronting the existential challenge of climate change and the exponential expansion of technology. These two factors were fundamental considerations in the work of the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work which released its report, “Work for a brighter future”, on 22 January. That report eloquently combined the new challenges of today with the tried and tested formula of ILO standards and the equal engagement of government, employers and workers and their unions. It provides the basis for a new, revitalised social contract.

One of the salient recommendations of that Commission is the establishment of a Universal Labour Guarantee, ensuring fundamental rights to all workers, regardless of the type of employment or contract they have. It would guarantee their rights to union membership and collective bargaining, protect against discrimination, slavery, child labour and dangerous working conditions as well as a fair measure of control over their working hours.

The Commission report also calls for a universal entitlement to life-long learning to help workers equip themselves for the future, and for the basic safety net of social protection to be extended to all instead of the minority who have it today. Concrete measures to realise gender equality, 100 years after the Versailles Treaty promised equal pay for women, are accompanied by calls to invest in care, infrastructure and in the green economy. Digitalisation and the use by employers of “platform” businesses to escape regulation also come under the microscope, with the Commission recommending international regulation of these new forms of business.

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Image: World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report

While the prescriptions of the ILO Commission will go a long way to delivering a framework of justice for a digitally dependent future of work, they need to be complemented and reinforced by action in other policy areas. Governments need to fulfil their responsibility to regulate, including by requiring due diligence and lifting of standards in corporate supply chains, by stopping corporate tax avoidance and evasion and by ensuring that competition law breaks up monopolies and allows freelance or own-account workers to collectively set floor prices and conditions.

The World Economic Forum too has a critical role to play, with its convening power, engagement with business and important work on the future of production and many other areas.

Trade unions will be taking these prescriptions into the ILO Conference in June, and into all other relevant fora within countries and across borders. This includes global trade, where the fictive and destructive separation of trade policy from social and environmental standards needs to be done away with. Without this, the existential crisis of the multilateral trading system will only deepen. It also encompasses the Bretton Woods institutions - the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - which still cling to discredited economic theories. Coherence between the international institutions is needed, with ILO at the heart of global policy making.

The world faces a stark choice. Will the global economy continue on the current unsustainable path, with yet greater inequality and a creeping return to feudalism in a modern cloak, or can the world collectively get its act together and shape a positive future?

We can harness technology to create new jobs and we can ensure a just transition to new employment for those whose jobs are at risk. We can defeat climate change. The magic ingredient is political will, the courage to make choices that may be uncomfortable for some of the bigger corporations and vested interests. With economic insecurity fuelling distrust in government and institutions, threatening democracy itself, it is the course of collective commitment and effort that must be followed. It is to that end that the international trade union movement will work.