A Fairer Future of Work: ILO Pushes for a ‘Human-Centred Agenda’ in the Age of AI

The International Labour Organisation looks ahead at new challenges – from robotics to climate change –and offers solutions, including life-long social protection and life-long learning.

Geneva: Are robots taking away human jobs? Where will the jobs of the future come from?

Are our skills becoming increasingly outdated? Is the gig economy creating precarious jobs?

The rapidly transforming world of work has made headlines of these social anxieties. This week, as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) prepared for the centenary of its founding, it urged its 187 member states to commit to a vision for a ‘human-centred agenda’ to deal with the rapid and unprecedented transformation in the world of work.

“Today’s skills will not match the jobs of tomorrow and newly acquired skills may quickly become obsolete,” the report says. Yet is quick to warn against dystopian conclusions. ‘Decisive action’ and ‘reinvigorating the social contract’ can prepare us for a fairer future of work, it says.

Work amid robots, mechanisation and AI

The commission was co-chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven. It had two representatives from India – Reema Nanavaty from the Self Employed Women’s Association’s (SEWA) and Alwyn Didar Singh, former Secretary-General of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI).

Its report advocates for a ‘human-centred agenda’ – focused on social justice, reducing inequality, and a fairer future of work, following its motto of “decent work for all”. It also advocates for investing in people’s capabilities, in decent work and sustainable jobs, and also in institutions of work.

The ten recommendations of the ‘Global Commission on the Future of Work’ are a culmination of fifteen months of deliberations with 27 leading figures from labour, industry, academia, government and NGOs.

The report was released by Ramaphosa and ILO’s Director-General Guy Ryder. “Change (in the world of work) is inevitable,” Ramaphosa said while interacting with the press. “We better be ahead of the curve so that we can shape the type of world of work we want to see.”

ILO staff watching the ILO DG’s speech at the centenary celebrations in Geneva.

Both Ramaphosa and Ryder addressed concerns over job losses due to technology, saying decisive policymaking can ensure that humans are always at the centre of the world of work.

“The view of the commission is that it’s not helpful to have a binary view of the future of work,” they said. “We do not engage in estimates how many jobs will be lost to robots etc. The future of employment is not going to be determined alone by the forward march of technology or technologists – we have to make the right policy choices to put humans in control.”

They stressed the importance of life-long learning:constant re-skilling and upskilling to ensure workers stay adjusted to the transformations in the labour market. Quality education and basic skills-training at an early age are crucial to that vision.

On the question of funding, they said the burden cannot be placedentirely on workers. “We recognise a role for both public authorities and employers to fund life-long learning,” Ryder said.

Citing an example from South Africa, Ramaphosa said that the auto industry there has moved towards automation, but it has also opened up opportunities for workers in ancillary activities that support the industry.

The cost of cynicism is too high

The report outlines ambitious recommendations, many of which could be tough to fully implement in most developing countries. Responding to cynicism in the media,Ryder said, “It’s not realistic to be less ambitious than the approach taken in this report. We can’t afford it. Social justice is a precondition for peace and justice in the world.”

Even as the ILO report was released in Geneva, world leaders gathered in Davos – also in Switzerland – for the World Economic Forum (WEF). Ryder, sharing the stage at the WEF event with IMF’s Christine Lagarde conveyed the spirit of the ILO report, to insist that “human beings need to be put back at the centre of policymaking.”

Asked about recent labour unrest around the world, including the Yellow Vests movement in France, they said uncertainty and anxiety about the future of work were changing the dynamic of social unrest, and reiteratedthat the solution was a new social contract built around decent work for all.

On the case for Universal Basic Income (UBI), a hotly-debated issue in India, Ryder said, “UBI was vigorously discussed in the commission and a decision was taken to not make direct references. Work is so essential to people’s lives – to go down a road where there’s guaranteed income in a workless environment is not desirable.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and ILO’s Director-General Guy Ryder addressing the media.

Instead, the commission endorsed a universal labour guarantee. To that end, it recommended:

a) fundamental workers’ rights: freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining and freedom from forced labour, child labour and discrimination;

(b) a set of basic working conditions: (i) “adequate living wage” (ii) limits on hours of work and (iii) safe and healthy workplaces.

The report also emphasised the importance of work beyond just economic activity: “Beyond our material needs work can give us a sense of identity, belonging and purpose. It can expand our choices, allowing us to glimpse optimistically into our own future.”

Inequality a barrier to a fairer world of work

A recent report by Oxfam highlighted shocking levels of income inequality in India, saying, “rising wealth inequality threatens the social fabric of the nation.”

The ILO report also warns that, “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.”

But it also offers remedies to move towards a fairer world of work.

A key recommendation of the commission is “guaranteed social protection from birth to old age”. On the problem of financing,Ryder said, “We don’t think individual savings is enough. There needs to be broader solidarity and we need to look at fiscal policies.”

The report being formally released by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ILO headquarters in Geneva.

Expressing frustration over the slow pace of change in gender equality, it says that the measures taken over past decades are not enough. It recommends policies to ensure care and household responsibilities are equally divided among men and women, with greater investment in public care services “to ensure a balanced division of care work, not only between men and women but also between the State and the family.”

“While women in many countries are often encouraged to enter male-dominated fields, men are rarely encouraged to enter traditionally female occupations. The work that women do is often viewed as “secondary” to the work of men, despite the number of female-headed households across the world,” it adds.

A universal labour guarantee, guaranteed social protection, and transformative and measurable agenda for gender equality are some of the recommendations of the commission to combat inequality.

Also Read: Nine Richest Indians Now Own Wealth Equivalent to Bottom 50% of the Country


Some of the major recommendations of the report are:

  • A universal labour guarantee that protects fundamental workers’ rights, an adequate living wage, limits on hours of work and safe and healthy workplaces.
  • Guaranteed social protection from birth to old age that supports people’s needs over the life cycle.
  • A universal entitlement to lifelong learning that enables people to skill, reskill and upskill.
  • Managing technological change to boost decent work, including an international governance system for digital labour platforms.
  • Greater investments in the care, green and rural economies.
  • A transformative and measurable agenda for gender equality.
  • Reshaping business incentives to encourage long-term investments.

Speaking to The Wire on the sidelines of the launch, the Indian members of the Commission, Nanavaty and Singh, described how they put forth India-specific concerns in the committee’s discussions.

“It gave me a global platform to highlight the voices of the informal women workers in India,” Nanavaty said. “Voices of rural workers remain neglected, there’s an increasing feminisation of agriculture and the issue of unpaid care workers is a major concern. Now, it remains to be seen how our government responds to the report and if it makes any policy changes in favour of informal women workers.”

Singh, who represented Indian industry on the committee, described its work as a collective attempt to seek answers to the transformation of work.

“Neither Indian industry, society or politics really understand the future of work. Even globally, nobody knows,” he told The Wire. “Just like climate change, we know it’s coming, we are trying to prepare for it but we can’t say what exactly it’ll be. In trying to find those answers to the evolving future of work lies the work of the government, businesses and the ILO itself.”

All pictures by Akhil Kumar