What Asian countries should not miss while preparing the future of work

OpEd by ILO economists Sara Elder, Christian Viegelahn and Tejeshwi Nath Bhattarai, authors of 'Preparing for the future of work: National policy responses in ASEAN +6', a study of how ASEAN+6 countries are preparing their labour markets for technological, climate and demographic changes.

Comment | 03 October 2019
From left to right: Tejeshwi Nath Bhattarai, Sara Elder, Christian Viegelahn, authors of Preparing for the future of work: National policy responses in ASEAN +6
Asia is a region that is continuously in transformation. It is also a region that is strongly impacted by the mega trends that shape the future of work: technological change, demographic shifts and climate change. The dynamism, the booming urbanization, the appetite for technology and with over a billion people working, the buzz around the future of work could arguably be stronger here than anywhere else. And it is mostly a buzz of optimism, at least on the matter of technology. Why?

Developing and emerging countries see an opportunity to break through the middle-income ceiling by mastering Industry 4.0 that is anticipated to transform their labour-intensive manufacturing to higher value-added manufacturing with the application of digital technologies. To get there, some governments – such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam - are now taking action on specific national Industry 4.0 plans. These industrial strategies go together with other plans, strategies and programmes on science and technology, innovation and digitalization that governments view as essential to keep their industrial sectors competitive and their economies expanding. Will it work? There are some doubts.

There is a lot missing from these technology-driven growth strategies, and a lot more to talk about when we discuss the future of work in Asia. Based on the review of national policy responses to three mega trends in 16 Asian countries, namely technological, climate and demographic changes, here are three key elements that are typically overlooked in the national future of work dialogues and planning:

1- The future of work is not high-skilled alone

Nearly all Asian countries put great emphasis on the development of a high-skilled workforce to bring the country forth to the global technological frontier. However, for the moment, only 14 per cent of the workforce in the countries studied are in high-skilled work. Do we imagine that demand for skilled workers is going to grow exponentially over the next five years? It is not likely. For the moment then, the demand for high-skilled work is not large and going by recent studies is adequately met by recruitment among emerging graduates

The strong focus to promote high-level skills in national plans is not misguided. Skilling, re-skilling and upskilling will always be important and acquiring higher-level skills continues to offer a pathway to higher paid and formal sector jobs. But it starts to feel a bit imbalanced. The smooth functioning of an economy does not only lie on the shoulders of workers that drive technology advancement. Let us not forget the care workers, nurses, food preparers, agricultural workers, construction workers, domestic helpers, retail workers and millions of other services workers that continue to serve as the backbone of the Asian economies. The demand for these workers is not likely to disappear any time soon, even with rapid technological progress.

2- Support workers through transitions

The disruptions caused by technological change or environmental change will undoubtedly cause job losses for some workers. Yet there is not much on the topic of job disruption in the planning documents, either because it is not yet happening to scale or because these documents need to focus only on the positive aspects of technological advancement. Still, countries should be ready to help people whose jobs become obsolete in the manufacturing sector or elsewhere get back on their feet. Countries’ capacity to do so depends in part on the strength of their investments in active labour market policies and social protection. Neither institution is fully developed at the moment in most countries in the region.

3- The more inclusive the dialogue, the better

Asian countries develop their planning and policy documents on technological progress often in collaboration or consultation with businesses. Naturally, the focus of policies will be on how to generate benefits from new technologies for enterprises. The inclusion of trade unions or other interest groups could contribute to a wider perspective and the development of strategies on how to use new technologies to achieve broader social objectives.
In June this year, the member States of the 100-year-old International Labour Organization adopted the Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, pledging to make people’s rights, needs and aspirations as primary objectives of economic, social and environmental policies through a “human-centred approach to the future of work”. Policy recommendations include strengthening the people’s capabilities to benefit from the opportunities of a changing world of work, strengthening the institutions of work to ensure adequate protection of all workers, and promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

While all countries in the region are addressing policies for the future of work according to their national circumstances, they would benefit from increasing decent job opportunities for persons of all skills sets, taking a “human-in-command” approach to technology and building up the institutions of work. These are the most effective means to translate economic growth into inclusive and sustainable development. A failure to do so would split the world along the lines of winners and losers of technological progress and perpetuate if not increase inequalities—a future we cannot afford.