G7 and the ‘Future of Work’: A Call for Accountable Automation

Will a robot take your job? It’s impossible to avoid the daily headlines predicting the takeover of artificial intelligence and the end of the modern economy as we know it. But while artificial intelligence and big data analytics may threaten more cognitive-based employment in the future; today, displacement by automation is a reality for millions of low-skilled workers around the world. 

While there have been constant, yet uneven, technological advances over the past industrial revolutions, the projected scale and scope of automatization and mechanization that our societies are about to experience present unprecedented challenges. These transformations will affect a broad range of sectors and industries, and will have both positive and negative impacts on labor markets, and in particular on jobs, workers, and wages.

‘Preparing for jobs of the future’ is a key priority for the Canadian government during its 2018 presidency of the G7. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated that as ‘G7 partners, we share a responsibility to ensure that all citizens benefit from our global economy, and that we leave a healthier, more peaceful, and more secure world for our children and grandchildren.’ The impact of technological advancements and how to respond to it, is also the theme of this week’s G7 Employment and Innovation Ministers meeting taking place in Montreal, Quebec on March 27-28th. Some of the questions that will be explored by the Ministers include: What role do companies play in helping workers adapt and prepare for new opportunities? How can government and industry work better together to address these issues? How do governments advance reskilling and retraining efforts in the present day? How can governments better support transitioning workers and improve safety nets in the new economy, while maintaining competitiveness?

Although the G7 represents only 11% of the worldwide population, when adjusted for economic output these countries represent a third of the world’s economic output. The G7 therefore has significant influence on the global economy. With this influence comes a responsibility to ensure that economic growth is sustainable and the benefits are shared by many, not just a few.

As such, when the G7 Employment and Innovation Ministers meet this week to discuss the impact of technological advancements and how to respond to it, they must place human rights at the center of the conversation. They should align such responses to their international human rights obligations, as well as to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDGs 8 (decent work and economic growth) and 10 (reduced inequality).

The future of work will undoubtedly feature high levels of automation. ICAR calls on the G7 to ensure that this transition is done in a responsible and accountable manner. This means guaranteeing human rights protection, improving social safety nets, engaging and supporting transitioning workers, and ensuring responsible business practices.

Automation and Human Rights

 While there are a number of benefits that come from increased use of automation technologies, such as the ability to eliminate hazardous and inherently dangerous work, the risks and potential impacts of such technologies must also be addressed. Without targeted interventions, automation could lead to increased levels of inequality, discrimination, and the inability to access a host of economic, social, and cultural rights.

Technological developments will decrease the costs of production and the demand for human labor. This in turn risks driving a race to the bottom on wages and also worker benefits. It also has the potential to reduce workers’ leverage to exercise their rights, including their right to collective bargaining. In addition, a broad range of economic and social rights, such as the right to health, food, and adequate housing, which depend on the exercise of the right to work will also be threatened.

Low-skilled workers in globalized supply chains will disproportionately and more rapidly find themselves displaced as a result of automation. In many industries, such as electronic and apparel, millions of workers are at risk of losing their jobs and experiencing severe difficulties in finding decent employment again. This will not only undermine the stability of the global economy and inequality levels, but will likely have additional impacts on migration flows. Given the reach and power of the G7 economies, G7 leaders must consider the impacts of technological transformations on workers in non G7 countries, particularly developing countries, into consideration.

Support Transitioning Workers and Improve Social Safety Nets

 Technological advancements should not come at the expense of established labor and social protections. In line with their international human rights obligations, States are required to guarantee an adequate standard of living and protect against harms occurring as a result of technologically-driven labor displacement. Possible legal and policy measures to comply with these obligations include: developing and strengthening social security and unemployment protection schemes, implementing a ‘robot tax’, guaranteeing a universal basic income, and increasing funding and focus on job retraining programs and also science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

Sustainable economic growth and poverty eradication is only achievable through safe, stable, and well-paid jobs. To be able to deliver on its goal of promoting sustained, sustainable, and inclusive economic growth, the G7 must therefore strive to guarantee decent work for all, in line with SDG 8. According to the ILO, decent work involves receiving a fair income, enjoying security in the workplace and social protection for families, and freedom to organize and participate in social dialogue, among others. During this week’s deliberations on ‘jobs of the future,’ the G7 Employment and Innovation Ministers must therefore focus on ensuring safe and quality jobs that guarantee a living wage to all workers.

 Ensure Responsible Automation

 As part of their responsibility to respect human rights, companies must identify, prevent, and mitigate the negative human rights consequences of increased automation of their operations. Companies can address the impacts of automation by developing responsible automation plans, which include providing early and sufficient notice of an upcoming transition to automation and providing financial and technical support, as well as retraining and upskilling opportunities to affected workers.

Governments should encourage and reward businesses that strive to transition to automation in a responsible manner, while providing frameworks to prevent violations of fundamental rights as a result of technological advances. Governments and businesses should partner to promote the retraining of workers, so as to accompany and support displaced workers getting different jobs, as well as to match the labor force’s skills to the needs of transformed industries.

Workers Must be at the Table

When discussing the future of work, it is imperative to consult and give a voice to unions, and labor and civil society organizations. These stakeholders are in a unique position to contribute to finding viable solutions to the challenges brought about by technological transformations. We welcome the recent call for inputs on the Public Engagement Paper on Preparing for Jobs for the Future, however, encourage more targeted and inclusive engagement and consultation, particularly with those who are most likely to be impacted by automation in the future.

The participation of workers’ representatives from all over the world must be further facilitated at both the G7 and national level. This will help strengthen the effectiveness and facilitate smoother implementation of the solutions designed to address the challenges posed by technological advancements.

Preparing for Jobs of the Future: A Call for Accountable Automation

The entire international community needs to be urgently and seriously contemplating the impacts that displacement in labor will have on exacerbating inequality and leading to a more polarized world, both economically and potentially politically. We therefore commend the G7 for featuring the ‘future of work’ as a priority area and urge G7 leaders to put human rights protections front and center of their deliberations. This will ensure that the benefits of economic growth are shared more broadly and that the jobs of the future will be safe, decent, and provide a living wage.

Sarah McGrath, Legal and Policy Director, and Marion Cadier, G20 Project Coordinator