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The Future of Work We Want: A Closer Look at Technological Innovation’s Link to Widening Global Inequality – Part I

The interplay between technological innovation and rising inequality deserves more study and debate. This is a three-part article delving deeper into the global landscape of inequality in relations to extreme technological and wealth – capital – accumulation.  

Technological innovation’s impact on the future of work, especially widening global inequality, was a key focus of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Global Dialogue on the Future of Work We Want earlier this month. The Global Dialogue gathered over 700 leading international thinkers and actors at the forefront of the ILO’s Future of Work Centenary Initiative.

Conference goers were asked which major trends will have the greatest impact on the future of work via a Facebook survey. Thirty-five percent of respondents thought “technological innovation” would have the greatest impact on the future of work, followed by “rising inequality” at 25%, while 17% chose both “globalization” and “climate change.” “Migratory trends” captured 4% of responses. Although not scientific, the survey provided some insights into the major preoccupations of leading thinkers and actors on the issue.


Neo-Feudalism: Today’s Rising Inequality

Warwick’s Robert Skidelsky, the keynote speaker of the ILO Global Dialogue, likened present income and wealth inequalities within and across countries to those of feudal times. He argued that, with the rapidly changing nature of jobs and the greater concentration of digital market power in the hands of a few, we are living in a winner-takes-all economy More on this in Part II and III

(A Global Dialogue on Future of Work: Decent Jobs for All | International Labour Organization)

During the third panel discussion on Decent Jobs For All, Harvard’s Richard Freeman noted, “the share of income gone to labour has decreased” and “ownership of capital (including technology) is the most unequal…” it’s been at any time in recent history. Freeman’s claims echo Thomas Piketty in his seminal 2014 work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty studied the structure and evolution of income and wealth distributions, covering three centuries in twenty countries. Data in Piketty’s work reveal that we are living in period of “extreme concentration of the ownership of capital” (p. 34), coinciding with the hyper concentration of wealth among a handful of men. These factors are leading to the return of a patrimonial wealth-based (neo-feudalist) society, similar to that of the 19th century, where inherited wealth is the most important factor of one’s social mobility and well-being.

To drive this point home, Oxfam’s 2017 report vividly illustrates that the eight richest men today have the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. Reflecting on today’s extreme concentration of ownership of capital in the hands of the few, I am reminded of the best-selling book Pluocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (2012) by Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs. In it Freeland warns of the dangers for liberal democracies when a small group of the super-rich dominate public discourse and global governance.

Jennifer Welsh, of the European University Institute, draws a similar conclusion to Piketty and Freeland about the present landscape of inequality in her 2016 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Massey Lecture on The Return of Inequality. Like Piketty, Welsh concludes that leveling of inequality seen during the decades after 1945 was an outlier, a blip in history created by great war, drought, and economic recession. She posits that “in the future, we will see low growth capitalism conjoined with high levels of inequality and low levels of social mobility.”   


Listen to Jennifer Welsh’s 2016 Massey Lecture 5: The Return of Inequality broadcasted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.


Reaffirming that “Labour is Not a Commodity”

How can we move beyond a world of extreme inequality and concentration of capital? The answer starts with social dialogue. The head of the ILO, Director-General Guy Ryder summed up the two day global gathering with “the future of work must be inspired by considerations of humanity, of social justice and peace. If it is not, we are going to a dark place; we are going to a dangerous place.” The landmark event ended with a strong call on the global community to make social dialogue between governments, employers and workers, as a key instrument for building a world of work that leaves no one behind.

As the ILO prepares itself for its next centenary, we need to reaffirm, through social dialogue and political reaffirmation the fundamental principle that “labour is not a commodity.” These five critical words were at the heart of the ILO Declaration of Philadelphia of 1944, which was agreed upon by the international community. The declaration welcomed the ILO into the United Nations family as a specialized agency. It also outlines the aims, purposes, and key principles that embody the work of the agency.


(Click on the above image to view the ILO Declaration of Philadelphia of 1944 | United Nations)

The labour we do is not the same as a robot, a bushel of coffee or a bar of pure silver – which can all be negotiated and sold for profit. Work is an integral part of everyone’s life. At its core, work is crucial to every person’s dignity, well-being, participation in society, and human development. Work, therefore, cannot be treated as an inanimate commodity, like a robot, coffee or silver.

In conversations (and economics) about the race between human versus machines and labour versus capital, inanimate commodities are made equal to human labour (I am also at fault of this comparison, read The Bottlenecks of Automation). However, it is important to note that technological change is a powerful determining factor of future education and labour force directions.

Presently, the European Parliament (Committee of Legal Affairs) is conducting a public consultation on robotics and artificial intelligence that will finish at the end of April 2017. One of the most interesting moral and legal aspects of this public consultation is the long-term possibility of creating a legal status that makes highly autonomous robots into “electronic persons. The conversation around the value of work, as well as its governance in the future potentially challenges our current notion that human labour versus robots as commodity.

Recalling the 2008 Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization, by reaffirming the ILO’s fundamental principle that labour is not a commodity and poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere in the Future of Work centenary conservations can be a foundation for future ethical and legal frameworks governing technological innovation and the future of work. This fundamental principle should guide us in reconceptualising why and how to fairly redistribute the gains of digital dividends and decent work for all in a digital future for all.


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