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Work for Human Development: Technology’s Impact on Decent Work

Generation Jobless.

I thought a master’s degree would be the ticket to a good job.

I just stepped into the world of work and as a very recent graduate, the question and the challenges of work are frequently on my mind. A decent wage? Benefits? Social protections?

There are the job opportunities with a decent wage, benefits and social protections for it seems only a lucky few.

The first thought was a 2015 documentary painfully entitled, “Generation Jobless”. It starts with “there was a time when a University degree assured you a of good job, good pay, and a comfortable life.  Not any more…. so many young Canadians (but can be anyone) are overeducated and underemployed. The reality is that today’s twenty-somethings are entering  an economy in the throes of a seismic shift where globalization and technology are transforming the workplace.”

I always worked while going to school and was privileged enough to complete two internships, including one with the ITC-ILO’s Learning Methodologies and Technologies team during the summer of 2014. And I fit some volunteering in, when there was time to spare.

Tech@Work is fundamental to human development.

Luckily, the UNDP’s flagship 2015 Human Development Report (HDR) on Work for Human Development, encourages workers like me — and governments — to look beyond paid employment, which seems so elusive, and considers the many other forms work takes. Unpaid care work and voluntary and creative work are also essential for human development. The UNDP 2015 HDR defines work as “any activity that not only leads to the production and consumption of goods or services but also goes beyond production for economic value. Work thus includes activities that may result in broader human well-being, both for the present and for the future.”

To learn more about this, I attended a launch of the Human Development Report 2015 report. Helen Clark, the head of the UNDP (and the former prime minister of New Zealand) said that “decent work contributes to both the richness of economies and the richness of human lives. All countries need to respond to the challenges in the new world of work and seize opportunities to improve lives and livelihoods.” Interestingly, disruptive technology was identified as a major driver in the changing world of work, as noted in Chapter 3 of the report.

The current technological revolution presents unique challenges and opportunities for human development. The technological revolution coupled with the forces of globalization are making structural transformation worldwide. Mobile technology, automation, cloud computing, 3D printers, advanced robotics and many other are disrupting how we work, who we work with, our workplaces, work relations, and the governance of work. It impacting how we are integrated into the global value chains and creating prosumers. Further, disruptive technology is reshaping work and creating new frontiers and forms of work and economy, and transforming markets.

Technology’s Impact on Decent work?

Work is a powerful engine of human development. However, the link between work and human development is not a given. This is because the quality of work is as important as its quantity. In addition to work, the nature and condition of work are important in ensuring decent work. Is it safe, secure, fulfilling? Does it bring workers a sense of dignity? Does the work comply with workers’ rights and human rights norms? These are all critical questions in trying to size up the quality of work. 

Today, there is a general shift away from the standard employment model, which is exemplified by workers having stable jobs, full-time hours and earn wages and salaries in a dependent employment relationship vis-à-vis their employers. I am a part of this.

From the 1970 to early 2000s ushered in electronics, the digital age, the Internet, and automation have decreased labour’s share of the GDP as companies substituted labour for cheaper capital. In other words, employers are replacing workers with machines, leading to the polarisation of the labour market – the hollowing out of middle-skilled jobs and driving down the overall quality and potentially quantity of jobs.

At the same time, the role of work as a mechanism to redistribute wealth and income among society has weakened. Experts project that 47% of total U.S. jobs are susceptible to computerisation. In fact, one McKinsey Global Institute study revealed that the top three tech firms in Silicon Valley, which have a combined worth of $1.09 trillion, employed 137,000 people in 2014. By contrast, in 1990, Detroit’s three largest firms, with total capitalization of $36 billion, collectively employed 1.2 million workers. Today, there are less quality jobs that pays.   

Work can also damage human development. Poor job quality remains a pressing issue worldwide. Overworking is also an increasing concern in many developed and emerging economies. Today, 1.5 billion people face precarious and vulnerable employment. That’s over 46% of all the people employed worldwide! 

It is 2016. It is unacceptable to have 1.5 billion people working under precarious and vulnerable employment conditions. It a call for action. The ILO’s Decent Work Agenda, which was reinforced in 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, calls for the promotion of sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. 

Disruptive technology is a powerful driver of the future of work and how we can meet the ambitious targets set forth in 2030 Agenda. More attention must be paid to how disruptive technology is and will continue to have a significant impact in our work, workplaces, and the future of work. 

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Kai Hsin Hung

Kai-Hsin Hung is an External Collaborator with the ITC-ILO. He develops and designs curriculum and prototypes new sustainable learning solutions. His focus is innovation and knowledge synthesis of complex development challenges, including the future of work, food security, and climate change. He has broad experience in various roles in international advocacy, program management, and policy research at the International Development Research Centre and Global Affairs Canada. Follow him at @KaiHsinHung

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