The Future of Work

'Social dialogue is vital to meeting the challenge of the future of work'

ILO Director-General addresses a meeting on the future of work between the Italian government and employers' and workers' organizations at the country's parliament in Rome.

Statement | 13 October 2016
Minister Poletti,
Presidents Damiano and Sacconi,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank you for your participation in this event today. It is a pleasure to see here so many representatives of the social partners of Italy, and also very many Parliamentarians, meeting here in this beautiful room of the Italian Parliament.

Your interest bears witness to the historic role of Italy in the ILO as is reflected in the fact that Italy has ratified 113 ILO Conventions, one of the highest number in the world. It shows the active involvement of Parliamentarians in the life of the ILO, as they have to undertake the task of ratifying those conventions – most recently the key maritime labour and domestic workers’ conventions.

I would also invite you to move forward in the ratification of the new forced labour protocol that the ILO adopted two years ago, as I know is under discussion. Italy is actively identifying new forms of forced labour, and promoting international ways of addressing them. Thank you for that contribution.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Italy has an active and energetic engagement in the Future of Work Initiative of the ILO, and I will say more about that in a moment. To begin with I would like to emphasize two international factors that condition all our discussions today.

The first are the transformational factors that mean we are experiencing a moment of profound change. By that I mean that yes, there is a fourth Industrial Revolution, but there is much more besides that is generating profound and rapid changes in the world of work.

Secondly, we are still living through the impact of the very hard global crisis that has been with us since 2008.

So this is a time both of change and of stress in labour markets. It is a deeply difficult moment. Emerging economies, for a long time the locomotives of growth, in recent years are also faltering. The consequence is that we meet at a time of considerable uncertainty and even danger for the global economy – sentiments which were very clearly expressed at last weekend’s meetings of the international financial institutions.

It is internationally a moment of considerable difficulty, and there has been a difficult impact in Italy too. As you well know, after the crisis hit industrial production dropped by 22 per cent and in just six years, the crisis ate up some 9 percentage points of gross domestic product, and nearly 750,000 jobs were lost.

So it has been absolutely necessary that our time and efforts have been mostly devoted to considering how to relaunch growth, restore confidence and create jobs. Progress has been made, but not enough. Of course, we must continue to focus on reinvigorating the current economy and achieving job-rich growth.

And it also makes it all the more necessary to look at long-term changes, and to work now on the forces that are shaping the labour markets of the future. But I think it would be wrong today to think that “recovery” from the crisis means simply going back to where we were before 2008. Surely we must now go somewhere new and, we hope, better. The future is not already determined; it is the future that we make for ourselves.

And that is why, I think, the ILO Future of Work Initiative has stimulated so much interest. Indeed it has motivated more than 130 member States of the ILO to establish national dialogues on the future of work. Their outcomes will feed into a Global Commission on the future of work which will be established in the course of next year and that will report to the centenary ILO Conference in 2019. The objective is to equip the ILO to pursue its unchanging mandate for social justice in the future.

What Italy is doing and what Italy has to say on the future of work will be immensely important to the Initiative. Let us recall that work is enshrined in the first fundamental principle of the Italian constitution adopted in 1947, as the founding vision of the Italian Republic and society. Even today I find it difficult to conceive of a country founding its Constitution on the value and principles of finance. But as we look around the world, one could easily reach the conclusion that some Governments believe that the ideas of finance have precedence over the values of work.

Colleagues, I would like to focus today on what I see as four mega-drivers of change.

The first mega-driver is technology. Some say the fourth industrial revolution could be massively destructive of jobs and others say there are enormous opportunities for the creation of jobs. The fact of the matter is that there is no consensus. The optimists point out that history has always shown that, long-term, the Schumpeterian process of creative destruction results in more jobs and higher living standards. The pessimists argue that “this time it is different.”

We have to think beyond that, and not reduce the discussion to whether we create or reduce more jobs. There is no techno-determinist future: it all depends on how we manage technology; and how we manage economic relations.

What is certainly unprecedented is that the current technological revolution has the capacity to fundamentally change not just the number of jobs but the very way that work is organized and undertaken. I speak here of the appearance of the platform or “gig” economy. Again there are very different views. Some regard it as merely marginal or anecdotal, others as a precursor of a radical transformative change. A report published last week by McKinsey says that today this platform economy is already much larger than generally assumed.

Italy has just launched the national plan “Industry 4.0” which aims to spur investment, productivity and innovation over the period from 2017 to 2020. This plan is backed by an important partnership between the public and the private sectors, pulling together expertise and funds to manage the current technological revolution. I find this broad-based partnership all the more promising because of the involvement of the key ministries, together with representatives of employers’ organisations and trade unions, as well as universities and research centres. It should reach conclusions on how to manage, understand and draw benefit from these processes in the world of work, and it is very encouraging.

The second mega-driver of change is demography. In the foreseeable future, the most important trend in Europe will be the marked transition towards a much older population structure, something that is already clear in Italy where the share of citizens aged 65 and over is the highest in Europe.

Clearly ageing is the key issue for Italy and for most advanced economies, and your Government, Minister, has been in the lead in encouraging the G20 to address the “silver economy”; key challenges are sustainability of social protection systems and adaptation of labour markets for retention of older workers in the work force.

At the same time, we know there is a complementary drama of youth unemployment. We need a life-cycle approach in addressing these related problems.

From the global perspective though the challenge is not just of ageing but of differential demographic developments. Put simply, as the global North gets old, much of the global South (though not China) is staying young. It is almost like a law of nature. At the same time there is a paradox: the economic case for migration has never been stronger but the obstacles to it have never been larger.

Added to this strong and growing migratory pressure is the refugee crisis. There are now 64 million displaced people in the world, the most since the second world war.

By virtue of its geographical location, Italy’s humanitarian and political reflexes have been greatly tested by this great influx of those in desperate need. And they have triumphed. Thousands of Italian citizens have given a spontaneous example of human solidarity – and we thank them – while it is also worth noting that Prime Minister Renzi’s migration compact has been instrumental in stimulating the decisions of the UN General Assembly last month to negotiate new global compacts on refugees and on migrants.

The UN has decided that the refugee and migrant situation will be best addressed on the basis of two principles: shared responsibilities; and respect for international law. Currently, there is an absence of sharing of responsibility and a violation of international law. This must change as migration will be a huge feature of the future of work. Up to now we have made a bad job of managing migration internationally and Italy, due to its reflexes and to its location, can play a vital role in showing the way that migration should work in the future.

The third mega-driver is climate change, and the fight against climate change. I will be brief given the lack of time, but would just say that we must rise above the false choice of either protecting jobs or protecting the planet. We finally know – and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change has helped – that it is not only possible but beneficial to link more action to move to a low-carbon future with the creation of decent work opportunities. But that can only be achieved with careful planning. It will be complex but it is very definitely urgent, and it is necessary.

The fourth mega-driver of change remains globalization. For perhaps a quarter of a century we have come to regard globalization as an inevitable part of our lives, and to accept that it will provide the context within which the future of work will be framed. I think that assumption is today questioned as never before, because the manifest failure of globalization to share its benefits to very large segments of our populations has now unleashed an unprecedented and extraordinary backlash. Economic dysfunctions have generated social injustice which has provoked a political reaction that not only threatens to blow the whistle on globalization but also threatens, I believe, some of the basic values of our democratic process.

Too many citizens today believe they have to make a choice; either continue with globalization as it is today – with all the consequences that we know; or retreat into nationalism, isolationism, and the politics of identity and xenophobia. We know the consequences of that as well – even if we have to go back nearly 100 years to recall them. And that is what is at stake. We have to offer something better than that binary choice.

And so our collective efforts, through the world of work, need to go into making globalization fairer, ending poverty and reducing inequalities.

And this is the international agenda. Last year the UN’s 194 member States adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with the overarching objectives of the elimination of poverty in all its forms and the reduction of inequality within and between countries by 2030. The importance of Decent Work in achieving this aim is woven throughout the fabric of those Goals and their indicators.

This 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda is the international instrument in our hands today that, if taken seriously, can help place our world of work on a fairer and safer trajectory.

Colleagues, perhaps I leave you with more questions than answers, but such is the nature of our centenary initiative. We have to think and learn together about our future.

I am convinced that solutions require openness, diversity and inclusiveness. So I do hope that the issues of the Future of Work can be addressed everywhere through social dialogue among government, employers’ and workers’ organizations.

I would like to leave you with an example from Italian football which I much admired when I was growing up, with the exception of the system of catenaccio when after scoring a goal the Italian team would go on the defensive to prevent the other team from scoring!

But we cannot approach the future in that defensive way: to deal with the future of work we have to go on the offensive.

Thank you.