The ILO’s centenary in 2019 will arrive at a time when the world of work is at a crossroads. On the heels of the Great Recession that brought global unemployment levels to 200 million and led to widespread insecurity, labour markets across the world are undergoing deep transformations. These changes oblige us to rethink what work means and what it entails. They are also challenging societies to find ways to ensure that work delivers the jobs and incomes that people need.
For generations, work entailed for many of us – especially in the developed world – much more than a job. It was not only where we went to sustain our livelihoods and those of our families, but also where we created professional and personal communities. We were also rewarded for our efforts with a regular and fair wage, benefits such as retirement income, and some measure of security in case of illness or injury. In exchange for our efforts we were also granted a certain level of security: we knew when the next pay cheque was coming and were afforded some guarantees in case we fell or had an accident. The nature of this contract often led us to work for the same employer over an entire career.
For some workers in the developing and emerging world, especially those with a public sector or manufacturing job, this was also the case. For many others such a decent job was beyond reach but it was an aspiration. Managers, in turn, were rewarded with a stable workforce that they could train.
Today, the world of work is witnessing an erosion of the classical employee-employer relationship. An increasing share of the world’s workforce is employed in what the ILO calls “non-standard” forms of employment (NSE). This includes temporary work, part-time and on-call work, multi-party employment relationships such as “dispatch work” or disguised employment and dependent self-employment relationships. The rise of the “gig” or “on-demand” economy in recent years, whereby work is mediated through online web platforms or apps, has brought renewed attention to these forms of work. In addition, the place of work has also changed, with many more workers taking advantage of developments in information technology to work from home or for themselves.
For some, working in NSE is an explicit choice that has positive outcomes. Part-time work, for example, can allow workers to combine paid work with child-rearing, elder care, studies or further training. Yet for many others it is associated with insecurity, not only in terms of employment, earnings and hours, but also in fundamental workplace issues such as the right to a safe and healthy workplace and representation and voice.
Indeed, in some instances NSE has helped improved work-life balance via increased autonomy to organize one’s working time – facilitated by new technologies where one is not always obliged to be “at the office”. However, this has led to longer hours and increased ambiguity between paid work and personal time that requires people to be constantly available – all of which is associated with higher levels of stress and questions about compensation.
Similarly, non-standard employment allows enterprises to adjust their workforces in response to changes in demand and scheduling needs or to replace temporarily absent workers. Yet an over-reliance on the use of temporary workers can lead to productivity challenges, as enterprises lose the incentive to invest in training of their staff or in organizational and technological innovations.
Looking forward to ILO’s centenary, these new forms of work are likely to intensify in the age of digitisation and new technologies. At this important crossroads, government, employers and workers policy approaches must evolve in parallel. This is one reason why on April 6-7, the ILO will bring together leading global experts to discuss “the Future of Work We Want.” This landmark event presents an important step to gain greater understanding of the changes we are witnessing and to develop effective policy responses that can shape the future of work.
We recognize policies are needed to ensure that all types of work arrangements constitute decent work, as no contractual form is immune to the ongoing transformations in the world of work. While the years ahead will undoubtedly bring new changes, the dependence on work for one’s livelihood and the effect of work on a person’s overall well-being will not change. It is thus incumbent on governments, as well as employers, workers and their organizations, through national, regional and international efforts, to focus on these challenges in the context of the future of work, with the goal of promoting decent work for all.