ILO Report

World of disquiet

Print edition : March 01, 2019

Women workers on their way to a construction site in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, on December 27, 2018. Photo: CH. VIJAYA BHASKAR

At a call centre in Amman, Jordan, a 2016 picture. New business models in the digital economy often end up perpetuating traditional gender inequalities. Photo: MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS

In the centenary year of its founding, the ILO releases a report that reflects the disquiet felt among the working classes of the world and suggests a “human-centred” agenda to make the world of work more equitable.

IN 1919, as nations grappled with the problem of restoring their economies in the aftermath of the First World War, there was a general consensus that workers, employers and governments needed to come together to tackle the situation where “conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required”. It was acknowledged that the “world of work” had been disrupted, that the situation needed a global response and that labour could no longer be considered a commodity.

This was the genesis of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which observes the centenary year of its founding in 2019. There is a realistion within the organisation that the very conditions that triggered its formation are very much prevalent now and a “human-centred” agenda is imperative for the future of work. Although the reason for the gradual erosion of such an agenda is fairly clear, accompanied as it has been by the growth of capitalism, it would not be incorrect to assume that the disproportionate concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals and the unbridled control of society by the market economy are some of the factors that underlie the tremendous inequalities within countries and between nations.

The nature of the current crisis from the point of view of labour has been discussed in “Work for a Better Future”, a report by the ILO-appointed “Global Commission on the Future of Work”, a 27-member body co-chaired by the President of South Africa and the Prime Minister of Sweden. The report says that there is a need to enforce and reinforce the social contract by asserting the rights of labour; ensuring the mitigation, if not elimination, of practices like child labour; and enabling the participation of women in the workforce. The report says that the same social contract that lifted millions out of poverty later pushed billions into poverty as well.

There is overwhelming evidence the world over that unrest in the working class is rising steadily, with the crisis more acute in the “free democracies” of the world. The protests by the “Yellow vests” movement in France for better wages are a recent example of prolonged unrest and street action that has been met with brutal repression. Yet, the protests continue. There is also evidence to show that “new wars” have been waged, mostly by the powers that brokered peace after the two world wars, that have led to more economic insecurity and immigration challenges.

Social contract

The ILO report does not go into these contentious areas of neocolonial depredations that have had a tremendous impact on the working classes of the countries that are at the receiving end of them. What it acknowledges is that the formal “institutions of work” that were crafted to enforce the “social contract” have been undermined. Broadly interpreted, this could imply the withdrawal of the state from implementing labour laws and lack of other pro-labour policies. As a remedy, the ILO Commission suggests investment in not only the skills of the workforce but also the “institutions of work”. Another remedy involves investing in decent and sustainable work and to align economic and social policies around it. This is easier said than done as it is precisely by denying opportunities for decent work and by denying the share of their productivity in the wages of workers that enterprises maximise profit, often under the benign protection of elected governments.

A “human-centric” agenda involves expanding, not contracting, freedoms. This entails renewing the “democratic underpinnings” of the labour market, having more “social dialogue” and guaranteeing fundamental rights of work. It also involves developing capabilities to participate in democratic society. The ILO report suggests that investing in lifelong learning of a formal and informal kind—combining foundational skills, cognitive and social skills—is imperative. Whether governments would come forward to invest in such interventions is doubtful as the trend has been more towards squeezing social-sector expenditure and investment. The report cautions that adult learning as part of a lifelong learning strategy will only be possible if there is an assured income and labour market security. In the absence of such security, the incentive to acquire skills will not be there.

While employers, in the government and private sector, need to invest in their workforce, in-house skill development and training has not been taken up as seriously as it should have been. Workers, the ILO report recommends, should be entitled to “training rights” in all types of work even as they continue to enjoy the protection of their salaries. The report actually calls for access to universal quality education, which has been a constant demand of those working in the area of education.

Right to work

One other highlight of the report is its emphasis on the right of workers to remain economically active. Those who wish to work should not be denied that opportunity. It proposes that governments could increase the age of retirement and provide flexible hours for the ageing population as there are old people who cannot afford to stop working. It recommends a basic pension for everyone, including “increased investment in public employment services”.

The future of work is incomplete without gender equality. The First World War saw a huge number of women leave the hearth and enter the workforce as the men were conscripted in the war. Women played key roles in world peace, especially during the war years and in countries that were under the colonial yoke. Interestingly, the year 1919 also happens to be the centenary year of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, the anti-war activist, feminist theorist and founder of the Communist Party of Germany, who considered women’s liberation inseparable from the struggles and liberation of the working class.

The ILO report has a limited focus on the connection between gender equality and the sexual division of labour, though it makes a case for a greater investment in public care services and a greater interface between the state and care work. The questions that the report raises are not new. In the erstwhile socialist bloc countries and parts of Europe, childcare services by the state allowed women to work. That tradition has continued somewhat in the “social democracies”, the Nordic and Scandinavian countries and in some parts of Europe. There also seems to be enough anecdotal evidence in advanced capitalist countries such as the United States to show that even double income parents find it difficult to afford private childcare services. The report underscores the importance of care services by the state. The report calls for a “balanced division of care work” between men and women and between the state and the family. “Unpaid care work”, the report says, is a cause for concern.

Even as organisations such as the ILO deal with addressing traditional gender inequalities, including the sexual division of labour, the report notes that new business models in the digital economy are perpetuating gender gaps. Algorithms in job matching are creating gender biases, the report observes. While new biases have been discovered, the section on gender equality is somewhat sketchy, barely touching on harassment at the workplace. It seems a little odd considering that in the past one year, workplace harassment faced by women globally was a talking point. The report could have dwelt a little more on this aspect, especially as there are indications that companies may shy away from recruiting women for fear of being embroiled in litigious sexual harassment cases.

The report dwells substantively on the need for universal social security, or social protection. It estimates that more than half the global population is without any kind of social protection. It recommends a basic universal social protection system from birth until old age, complemented by contributory social insurance schemes and individual savings.

There has been talk of a universal basic income or a minimum income for some time now in India. But there has been little consensus on how much it should be. These are seen as exercises in populist obfuscation, especially as the government is involved. There are models such as the cash transfers under the Bolsa Familia programme of Brazil, but their replication in countries such as India is far from ideal. The Left parties and its trade unions have been pushing for the implementation of a basic minimum wage, which the Right parties have not accepted.

Universal labour guarantees

The actual crisis confronting the world of work and which the report addresses in the latter half is the need for humane conditions of work. It recommends a universal labour guarantee that includes fundamental workers’ rights, such as collective bargaining and the right of association and basic working conditions that include a living wage, limits on hours of work, and safe and healthy workplaces. That the ILO in its centenary year views a universal labour guarantee as a major goal is a sad reflection of the harsh reality of the world of work, a world that does not seem to have changed much since the post-World War years, especially for labour.

Humane working conditions, as envisaged by the founders of the ILO, were defined by a regulation of the hours of work; adequate living wages; protection from sickness, injury and disease arising out of employment; protection of children, young persons and women; provision for old age and injury; recognition of the principle of the freedom of association (forming unions); and equal remuneration for work of equal value. The grim reality is that all these conditions are being violated in most countries.

What was already a situation heavily skewed against the worker has become worse with technological breakthroughs such as artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, which threaten to replace human labour by creating “new jobs” that do not necessarily involve hiring labour. A social contract where all the obligations and duties are on the part of the workers is designed to fail.

While the ILO has been guarded in its observations about deliberations that take place at economic summits and the role played by governments at such international forums, there is growing appreciation for those who call a spade a spade. At Davos, Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, won many hearts when, during a discussion on universal basic income and shorter working hours, he described the World Economic Forum as an event that was “about saving capitalism”. He created a stir by saying that “wealth wasn’t created at the top; it is merely devoured there”. He told the billionaire community that they should stop avoiding paying tax. The video of a talk show where he featured was circulated widely.

Whether it is the striking workers of “Les Gilet Jaunes” (yellow vests) movement in France who have been protesting since December 2018 against the “one per cent”, the garment workers in Bangladesh or industrial and agricultural workers inIndia, there seems to be disquiet against disparities. There is a consensus that the model of development predicated on the accumulation of profit has failed the working classes.

The ILO report is significant to the extent that it recognises that the principles that it laid down a century ago continue to be relevant even now. The difference is that in the post-War period, there was a desire to honour the social contract. Today, it has become monumentally difficult to get governments to act on them.