In the past even the future was brighter / Peter Auer

In the past even the future was brighter / Peter Auer

The Global Commission on the future of work, set up in 2017 as a second step to the future of work initiative created by the DG, Guy Rider, in 2013, is in full working gear, organising technical events in order to issue a major report in 2019.

This effort makes me think that it is timely to remind of another major initiative on the same subject, back in the not so far past. In 2000 the French Ministry of Labour and the then Director General of the ILO, Juan Somavia, initiated a series of symposia on the same subject, coined in broader terms as the “future of work, employment and social protection”. I was then charged by the DG to coordinate these events in close collaboration with the French ministry of labour. Subsequently, the ILO invited  experts on the matter in the ILO, the French ministry, the social partners and the international research community and held 3 conferences in the years 2001, 2002 and 2005.

The first conference, organized in Annecy, France in 2001 discussed the need for the development of policies to provide security for workers in the face of growing uncertainties, which were caused by the forces of globalization, as well as technological and organisational change. Accordingly, the first conference discussed the large subject of the transformations of work and employment as a consequence of these changes and the impact of these transformations on work and society as well as the possible economic, political and social responses for increased worker security. (For details see the conference proceedings: Peter Auer and Christine Daniel “The future of work, employment and social protection: the search for new securities in a world of growing uncertainties” IILS, ILO 2002).

The second symposium meeting, organized in Lyon in 2002, focused on labour market dynamics and discussed trajectories of the employed and unemployed, life cycle approaches, the evolution of regulations and the need for well integrated policies. The concept of life long security, protected transitions on the labour market with varying periods of work, education and training, as well as the protection of risks at particular difficult periods in the life cycle of individuals was a core idea in this meeting. Balancing working and family life was seen as a particularly important part of modern, dynamic labour markets that increase female participation in the worklife. (see Peter Auer and Bernard Gazier ” The future of work, employment and social protection: the dynamics of change and the protection of workers” ILLS, ILO 2002).

The third meeting in 2005 was again organized in Annecy and found that globalization has indeed enhanced the overall well being of countries that have participated in globalization and have contributed to an overall reduction in poverty. However, in the public perception, globalization was increasingly seen as a job killer, affecting people’s life course negatively and a big driver of inequality. While it was found that most adversely affected are countries that do not, or only marginally participate in the economics of globalization, it was also acknowledged that that there are few policies effectively compensating the losers of globalization. The conference analysed these trends and patterns in the internationalisation of employment, looked at losers and winners and proposes new policies of compensation, based on labour rights and standards and on labour market and social policies  which build an effective employment adjustment and social protection system that leads to a fairer globalization. (See Peter Auer, Geneviève Besse and Dominique Méda “The internationalization of employment: a challenge for a fair globalization”, IILS, ILO 2005.)

In conclusion the series of conferences organized by France and the ILO posed many of the right questions and proposed a framework for labour standards and labour market policies that would allow to govern globalization at national and international level in order to make it fairer. However, the financial crisis starting in 2008, which needed ad-hoc interventions to cope with the negative impact on jobs, reduced the ability to build long term labour market and social policy frameworks that would accompany the shocks of globalization in a more sustainable way.  Quantitative easing worked well for private investors, but was accompanied by a reduction in public spending on social and labour market policies.

Also in the light of recent attempts by a major economic power to reduce globalization alltogether and install national preference, and the rise of nationalism in Europe and elsewhere one might ask if the paradigm “let globalization happen, but compensate the losers” is still accepted as a road map for developing standards and policies. What we see is that policies of compensation are superceded by protectionist measures, and one may ask whether the Annecy conference series was too overoptimistic on the governance of globalization by standards and policies. It is in this context that one may say that “in the past even the future was brighter” as this belief of being able to govern globalization in order to make it fairer is less prevalent today than in the early 2000s. This one of the important challenges that the Global Commission on the future of work will have to discuss.

* This is a variant of the saying in German “früher war auch die Zukunft besser” that is ascribed to the humorist Karl Valentin

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