It is pointless to deny it. The world of work is undergoing profound changes. An examination of the phenomenon under way reveals an acceleration in the automation and digitalisation of processes, with job losses outstripping new employment created. This prompts the question of where the world of work is headed, and what the future holds for workers. Also asking itself these questions is the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), which has organised the tenth edition of its SSE (social and solidarity economy) Academy on 3-7June in Turin, with a title that is a programme in its own right: “Social and Solidarity Economy – a Human-Centred Agenda for the Future of Work”.
Two working papers produced by the ILO tackle the issue, reflecting on the role that the social economy can play at global level. The first report, “Work for a brighter future” - click here - in English), was published by the Global Commission on the Future of Work (an independent commission chaired by former Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven and former president of South Africa Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, and comprising some 30 international figures), while the second paper, “Social and Solidarity Economy and the Future of Work” (click here for the text), is an ILO study focusing more on Europe and Italy. “These two key documents are available directly to all on our website ssecollectivebrain.net”, says Roberto Di Meglio, Senior Specialist in Local Development and Social and Solidarity Economy at the ILO.
In a transition period, the focus needs to be on training
According to Di Melgio, the report produced by the commission “confirms something that we can all sense, to some extent, namely that there are very rapid and profound changes happening in the world of work. The factors generating the changes, such as technological progress, artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, will create new jobs, but clearly there will also be people who lose their jobs during the transition. The report also highlights the need to promote investment in training as today’s skills will not be the ones that are needed in the future, and this will require great ability to move horizontally. Clearly, there is the question of the transformation towards a more sustainable economy and the need for people to continuously train and keep up-to-date via a process of lifelong learning. In concrete terms, the commission proposes a human-centred programme, giving people value, to prevent the phenomenon that reduces work to a good. “For the time being, at least, most work is not carried out by robots and until such time as it is, we need to make every effort to put people and work at the centre of both economic and social policies, and commercial practices”, adds Di Meglio.
Putting people at the centre: action lines
At global level, three action lines are suggested for putting people at the heart of the agenda for the future of work. These require additional investment in workers’ personal abilities, labour institutions, the dignity of labour and sustainable labour. “The dignity of labour is the ILO’s mission: adequate salaries, social protection and respect for workers’ fundamental rights. Unfortunately, the dignity of labour is not prevalent in the world around us”, observes Di Meglio. “What I’d really like to stress is that we have found, from studies carried out, that social enterprises and social cooperatives are forms of organisation that, by virtue of their characteristics, very often respect and comply with the standards that define labour as having dignity.”
Work in transformation: the numbers
Source: Work for a Brighter Future – ILO
The social and solidarity economy may therefore also be a response to the fragmentation of the labour market, to the 300 million in working poverty (ILO estimate of workers who live in extreme poverty, earning less than USD 1.90 a day) and the two billion “informal workers” (source: ILO, 2018). But, as Di Meglio says, there are also platform jobs such as those connected with the famous Amazon Mechanical Turk, which consists of 500,000 people working on microtasks, from translation to other things, or riders. In this case, these forms of social and solidarity economy can be a flexible response which, at the same time, can provide those working on these activities with basic guarantees that give dignity to the work. Occupations that are not only lowly-paid but also provide no job continuity or protection of any kind are becoming common; this is depressing the whole system and the market, creating situations, which if left unchecked can only get worse”.
The social and solidarity economy in the European context
In the European context, the social and solidarity economy is an important reality. As Di Meglio reminds us, “according to EU estimates, we are talking of over 13 million employed people (EU 28), equal to 6.3% of the working population, not to mention the 232 million members of mutual cooperatives and similar entities. The European Commission is very active in the social economy; we have seen that, in countries such as Spain and Italy, which were suffering from a recession from 2008 onwards, whereas the private sector lost significant numbers of employees, the social economy did not see job losses but, on the contrary, jobs were created despite the recession. This shows that, thanks to the economic characteristics of the social and solidarity economy, we can look to the future with greater optimism”.
The social and solidarity economy also plays a positive role in the gender gap: indeed, there is a high percentage of women in social enterprises, e.g. 70% in Belgium and 67% in France. In Italy, 61% of employees in social cooperatives (not seasonal part-time workers) are female compared with 47% in other companies (source: Social and Solidarity Economy and the Future of Work).
Workers’ buy-outs: an example
Concrete experiences, such as those of workers’ buy-outs, which often take the form of a workers’ cooperative, are examples of human-centred work agendas. “We are talking about companies whose objective is to meet the needs of the members of the cooperative, which can be translated into salaries, schools for the children and continuous professional training, or even to create something for the community in which the company is based. Apart from other differences, however, we are dealing with an entrepreneurial dimension with investment, labour and capital, but in a social enterprise there is, of course, a social dimension, which must be explicitly recognised; there is also a governance dimension, with the inclusion of stakeholders, while the other important aspect is a restriction on the distribution of profits that must be reinvested in improving the company”, concludes Roberto Di Meglio, reiterating how the social economy, by virtue of its characteristics, is the type of economy in which “the dignity of labour is more likely to be found”.