World leaders have been urged by an influential United Nations agency to sign up to a universal labour guarantee to bolster fundamental workers’ rights, including adequate living wages and collective bargaining through trade unions.
Designed to address rapid changes in the workplace triggered by the rise of the robot economy and technological automation, the International Labour Organization said a package of measures was required to put the world economy on a sustainable footing for the future.
Calling on world leaders to support the policies at the start of the annual gathering of heads of government and business tycoons in Davos this week, the UN agency, which marks its 100th anniversary this year, said failure would increase the risk of “sleepwalking into a world that widens existing inequalities”.
It comes as concerns grow over the impact of technology on workers’ jobs, pay and rights around the world, with automation rendering more traditionally human roles obsolete.
The Bank of England estimates that rapid technological change could put as many as 15m jobs in the UK at risk, while academics believe almost half of all workers in the US could be displaced by automation. Traditionally working-class jobs are among the worst affected, potentially raising inequality levels.
Some studies have suggested advances in technology will create more jobs than will be destroyed, although they warn that governments must invest in the protection of displaced workers and retraining.
Co-chaired by the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and the Swedish prime minister, Stefan Löfven, the ILO report is the culmination of a 15-month review by a 27-member commission of senior figures from the world of business, academia, trade unions and charities.
It calls for a universal labour guarantee that would enshrine the right to an adequate living wage, maximum limits on working hours, and health and safety protections. It would also enforce freedom of association in trade unions and the right to collective bargaining, freedom from forced labour, child labour and discrimination.
Repeated attempts have been made to suppress trade union organisation in the UK under Conservative governments since the late 1970s, while economists believe the declining presence of unions in the workforce may have contributed to a reduction in wage growth.
Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, has said falling levels of unionisation have lowered wage growth by about 0.75 percentage points a year over the past 30 years, in a sign of the weaker bargaining power of workers.
Figures from the ILO show Britain has had the weakest real wage growth among the most advanced nations in the G20 over the past decade.
Another recommended measure from the ILO is to strengthen social protection systems around the world. Many nations already run welfare-state models, but more than half of the global population are unprotected, with others requiring further strengthening.
The ILO also called for improved policies to support reductions in gender inequality, from parental leave to greater investment in public care services. Women are paid about a fifth less than men around the world.
Other steps include the creation of a universal entitlement to lifelong learning, to enable workers to gain vital skills and retrain later in life; and an international governance system that would require gig economy platforms, such as Uber and Deliveroo, to respect certain minimum rights and protections for workers.
Löfven said: “Governments, trade unions and employers need to work together to make economies and labour markets more inclusive. Such a social dialogue can help make globalisation work for everyone.”
Ramaphosa said: “[The report] should inspire global action to contain or eliminate challenges that humanity has inflicted on itself in the course of history.”