May 1st is Labour Day in most countries around the world. Although it still marks an ideological cleavage, as it was chosen as a date by the International, thus with a direct connection with Socialist and Communist movements, the sense of this day should not be lost. This year, this day of celebration is marked by the absence of workers, constrained in the most prolonged and most widespread lock-down in human history, due to the Covid19 pandemics.
Note: I’ve expanded the ideas of this post into a new article: Reinventing Work.
Which leads to a reflection on the meaning of Work today. With the escalation of the global pandemics, more than half of the worker population is at risk today of losing its job—a staggering number by any comparison. The curves of the unemployment rate are beyond alarming in most countries, with the US hitting over 30 million job losses, roughly the job population of 25 US States. And this does not account for a big part of Work that is usually not included in the unemployment statistics: that of the so-called gig-workers and that of self-employed people. In many countries, this has also shown how many shameful practices have been put in place, often even by public institutions, to circumvent employment legislation.
Last year the International Labour Organisation celebrated its 100th anniversary by issuing a Declaration for the Future of Work, where it laid down its focus for a future based on a human-centred approach. Critical pillars for this action are to Ensure all people benefit from the changing world of Work and Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full employment and decent Work.
Why Decent? Well, work itself is still a dangerous affair. The ILO estimates that every year there are more than 2.3 million workplace deaths: that’s an average of 6000 per day. Worldwide we still have 340 million workplace-related accidents every year. Just comparing these numbers with the current toll of the Covid-19 pandemic, should give you an idea that there is still a problem on the concept itself of Decent Work. Same as considering that almost half of the working population earn less than their country’s living wage standards.
Less than a year after, these ILO objectives are challenged at heart. What is the Work of the Future? Will we have Work in the immediate future?
The Covid Crisis has shown a significant discrepancy between the jobs that could be moved to remote working and those instead that suffered from an immediate halt. How many people, especially in the poorest regions of the world, could not afford to stay home, as they still earn their living day by day? Also in advanced western economies, this crisis has somewhat increased the disparity between a new split of working classes: “white collars” that can continue their Work from home and “frontline workers” in essential services, that have had to continue working in severe safety conditions, and have been paying a high toll in terms of deaths.
We can continue to discuss the fanciest scenarios of the Future of Work. But the reality today is that we need to decide what place Work will have in our future. And we need to address it from many different angles. Yes, we can reinvent Work to drive more engagement, try to have more fun at Work, rethink how AI will integrate new types of Work. The topic is, however much, much broader.
In this scenario, on this precise day, I genuinely think we should take a stand and think about the fact that the concept itself of Work needs to be reimagined and reinvented. Too many ideas that we continuously use, such as productivity or efficiency, are simply not adapted to the time we live in. The concept itself of employment is riddled with assumptions that came from a world that mostly does not exist anymore. And the Human Resources function has a crucial role in guiding this transformation and convincing the leadership of our organisations that work needs to be decent, that profit cannot be saught by exploiting workers, that Safety needs to be a priority for all, and that ultimately, the basis itself of capitalism is not capital, but the value that Work provides.