Technology is not the enemy of workers in the future world of work as long as a human-centered approach is adopted, says the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Employees and management need to work together to ensure that robots don’t decimate the workforce

While the creation and losses of jobs, as well as reskilling, have up until now been the main focus of automation, broader discussions are needed to ensure that the decent work agenda is advanced, the ILO says.

“Technology can free workers from arduous labour; from dirt, drudgery, danger and deprivation. Collaborative robots, or cobots, can reduce work-related stress and potential injuries,” the organisation says in its recently released Global Commission on the Future of Work report.

“But technology-driven processes can also render labour superfluous, ultimately alienating workers and stunting their development. Automation can reduce worker control and autonomy, as well as the richness of work content, resulting in a potential deskilling and decline in worker satisfaction.”

The fears of workers are not baseless. World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab has warned that millions of jobs are on the line, if leaders and regulators do not act now to ensure that Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies help create job opportunities and solve critical global challenges.

He warns that unless technology develops within an inclusive and sustainable governance system, the 4IR could exacerbate income inequality and leave billions of people behind.

The ILO It says that realising the potential of technology in the future of work depends on fundamental choices about work design, including workers and bosses being able to work together to discuss in detail how jobs should be crafted.

It says a “human-in-command” approach to artificial intelligence (AI) that ensures that the final decisions affecting work are taken by humans and not algorithms, also needs to be ensured.

“The exercise of algorithmic management, surveillance and control, through sensors, wearables and other forms of monitoring, needs to be regulated to protect the dignity of workers. Labour is not a commodity; nor is it a robot.”

The report says that technology, including AI, robotics and sensors, have countless opportunities to improve work.

The extraction of knowledge by data mining can assist labour administrations to identify high-risk sectors and improve labour inspection systems, and digital technologies such as apps and sensors can make it easier for companies and social partners to monitor working conditions and labour law compliance in supply chains.

Blockchain technology, which provides transparency and security through encrypted blocks and decentralised databases, can guarantee the payment of minimum wages and facilitate the portability of skills and social protection for migrant workers, or the payment of social security for those working on digital labour platforms.

Governments and worker and employer organisations need to invest in incubating, testing and disseminating digital technologies in support of decent work.

But the ILO warns that digital technology creates new challenges around effective labour protection.

“Digital labour platforms provide new sources of income to many workers in different parts of the world, yet the dispersed nature of the work across international jurisdictions makes it difficult to monitor compliance with applicable labour laws. The work is sometimes poorly paid, often below prevailing minimum wages and no official mechanisms are in place to address unfair treatment,” it says.

Because this form of work will expand, the report recommends developing an international governance system for digital labour platforms. This system must set and require platforms (and their clients) to respect certain minimum rights and protections. It cites the Maritime Labour Convention as an example.

Another concern is that new technologies generate large amounts of data on workers, which poses a privacy risk. These include algorithms used for job matching reproducing historical biases and prejudices.

Companies need to ensure that they have policies on transparency and data protection so that employees know what is being tracked.

Employees should be informed of any monitoring at the workplace and limits should be imposed on the collection of data that might prompt discrimination, such as on union membership.

Employees should also have access to their own data, as well as the right to hand it over to their representative or regulatory authority.

The report recommends that governments and organisations representing employers and workers monitor the impact of new technology on work, ensure that its development respects the dignity of workers, and consider adopting new regulations in light of these changes.

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