Emerging Technologies

Workers need a new social contract and technology has a key role to play

People protest during a Climate Strike march in San Francisco, U.S. September 20, 2019.

People are demanding a new social contract that delivers change. Image: REUTERS/Kate Munsch.

Sharan Burrow
Visiting Professor in Practice, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment
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This article is part of: Global Technology Governance Summit
  • Social inequalities have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as millions have lost their livelihoods.
  • Advances in technology threaten to exacerbate this already fragile global situation.
  • We need a new social contract that protects workers' rights while addressing the issue of tech governance.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have brutally exposed the fault lines in the global economy, with large parts of the world’s workforce trapped in precarious and insecure work. On top of the devastating toll of death and disease, hundreds of millions of jobs have been lost and more than a billion people in the informal economy have lost their livelihoods.

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The already weak multilateral system is now under unprecedented strain as existing tensions are exacerbated by supply chain failures and nationalistic reactions to the pandemic. Governments and many businesses are struggling to get to grips with the health emergency, although the technology sector and healthcare companies are seeing windfall profits.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an astonishing surge in wealth inequality, provoking anger, fuelling despair and further undermining trust in governments. A new social contract that delivers for people is more urgent than ever before.

Five demands working people want in their social contract:

  • Jobs: Climate friendly jobs and jobs in care.
  • Rights: Reversing the years of eroding workers’ and other human rights.
  • Equality: Ending the entrenched discrimination against women, racism and xenophobia, manifested in low incomes and high economic insecurity.
  • Inclusion: Realising the UN Sustainable Development Goals and leaving no-one behind.
  • Social protection: Ensuring a floor of income support for all.

These all require policy settings by governments, including the evident need to ensure regulation and good governance in digitalization and technology. Industry policy must be back on the agenda.

While arguments persist about the impacts of technology on employment, there is no question that digitalization and other innovations will drive both destruction of jobs and tasks and creation of new ones.

Governments cannot be passive bystanders in this. They need to establish rules and policies that ensure “Just Transition” for affected workers and that favour the creation of decent jobs. Top priority must be given to boosting employment for climate action and biodiversity as well as health and care. Creating jobs must be at the heart of economic reconstruction and building resilience. If governments don’t look out for people, people can’t look after the economy.

The 2020 ITUC Global Rights Index documents a seven year high in violations of workers’ fundamental rights. Technology-driven businesses are part of the problem, including platform businesses where governments, courts and even investors are now focusing on poor working conditions and denial of rights. Pervasive workforce surveillance, management by algorithm and other tools that boost profits at the expense of workers – and are often used to suppress efforts by workers to unionize – are being normalized.

The effects of the pandemic on inequality are well documented. Women are shouldering a disproportionate economic burden, the consequences have been devastating for migrant workers, and people facing racial discrimination are paying a heavy economic price as well as worse health outcomes from the virus. These are not secular trends – governments can and must act.


Intellectual property rights, lack of investment and the near absence of industry policy are depriving poorer countries of vital public health tools including vaccines, treatments, tests and health infrastructure. This is not only morally repugnant, the exclusion of developing countries from access to health technologies also provides a perfect global environment for the SARS-CoV-2 virus to spread and mutate. There will be no “post-COVID-19” as the virus will be with us forever, and the next pandemic is closer than many think. Regulatory and policy settings must address the exclusion and ensure an inclusive global response. And efforts to bring internet connectivity to nearly half the world’s population who don’t have it must be a core objective.

Similarly, universal social protection is an obligation for the world as well as a public health matter. Where people are forced to work because they have no sick pay or income support, the virus will continue to thrive. An investment of $78 billion to provide a social protection floor in the world’s poorest countries may seem a lot, but it is scarcely 15% of the extra wealth accumulated by just 10 men since the pandemic started.

We need a “Paris Agreement” on technology, as we have for climate.

Sharan Burrow

There is no lack of money needed to invest in the new social contract, only a lack of the taxation, anti-corruption and other measures that would meet the needs. One thing is for certain – a retreat to austerity would be catastrophic.

Governance of technology needs to be developed alongside redressing the governance deficits in all these areas. The task may seem daunting, especially in light of the retreat to national interests, and the current lack of an international body to develop and oversee it. But that should not dissuade us from pushing ahead. The Global Technology Governance Summit is a good step in that direction. We need a “Paris Agreement” on technology, as we have for climate.

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Emerging TechnologiesJobs and the Future of WorkForum Institutional
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