What is happening in the world of work?
Small changes are happening every day. We can look back and describe what has happened so far, but it is difficult – even impossible - to make predictions, they would be meaningless. When we speak about the issues around work, we so often tend to look for a single answer but that could lead us up the wrong track.
Then let’s try to take a snapshot of what has happened to see if there is a way forward.
During the lockdown, the spotlight shone on some relatively new categories of workers. The first group are the so-called ‘remoters’ who were surprisingly fast at adapting to the unprecedented change in the way their work was organised. This new scenario and the smart working phenomenon should lead us to reflect on a number of critical factors. One is related to changes in the way work is organised. The second touches on how performance changes. The third is the impact that workers staying at home has had on mobility and consumption in the historic centres of our large cities.
Personally, I believe that once we have taken stock of these impacts, we should focus our attention and thought processes on the organisation changes brought about by coronavirus. The second group of workers are the so-called essential workers: during lockdown we saw just how important these networks of workers were, those people who ensured that supplies were available through the hardest of times. Not just material supplies but also vital services like transport, electricity grids and technology networks.
Could we categorise riders as essential workers?
Without doubt. This category has been overlooked, but things have changed significantly in recent times. Before the lockdown, they mainly delivered food; now they are to all intents and purposes a private network. At least two national dailies use rider services to deliver their newspapers, chemists have started to deliver medication and there are many more examples. An organisation that was set up to deliver food to homes has become a fully-fledged network - though their activity still needs to be regulated. From a sociological point of view, we have to recognise that the rider workforce has changed.
How has the delivery workforce changed?
The number of young riders in Italy has plummeted. This opens up another topic for discussion: employment. The job market has been frozen as a result of two mechanisms: a freeze on redundancies and the widespread use of the furlough scheme (called ‘Cassa Integrazione’ in Italy). ‘Cassa Integrazione’ was key during the 2008-2015 recession and it has played its part this time too. But the system needs reform, to such a degree that the president of CNEL (Italy’s National Council for Economics and Labour), Tiziano Treu, has advocated for a complete overhaul of the system. Others have suggested a middle-of-the-road solution to transform ‘Cassa Integrazione’ from an instrument which purely aims to safeguard workers into a system whereby workers are protected but also helped to find new employment should their employer go under.
We need to reward those low-salary workers who have proved to be so crucial in maintaining the networks that have held up our society
Two labour market economists, Maurizio Del Conte and Andrea Garnero, share your point of view.
The idea is shared by those who would like to remove the ban on allowing workers to benefit from ‘Cassa Integrazione’ and to take on work at the same time. This would create a bridge, enabling people to find new employment and to no longer need the support of ‘Cassa Integrazione’. Another point is that ‘Cassa Integrazione’ and training programmes should be closely linked: many pay lip service to this idea but in reality, Italy is lagging behind. If we assume that it will not be possible to save all jobs, then we need to provide a large part of the workforce with the skills to take up new jobs.
And that can only be achieved by training.
By training and by re-skilling those workers whose employers have gone under. So far, we have only mentioned salaried employees, but we should not forget the self-employed. The category of the self-employed is a very broad one – many of them were already smart working – and we need to deal with this issue.
When we speak about the issues around work, we so often tend to look for a single answer but that could lead us up the wrong track
The self-employed were more used to an agile way of working, but to some extent their earnings depended on how their client companies were organized and how much work they outsourced. Today we have to be honest and admit that nobody knows how company organisations will evolve in practice. Some things are becoming clear, but it is too early to tell because we do not have a sufficient number of case studies to be able to identify trends. One question remains open: will the organization models that companies adopt have an impact well beyond the boundaries of those companies?
To start to move forward at least in the mid-term, what is required?
Rather than examining work with a capital W, I think we need three things: a far-reaching survey into smart working; an in-depth examination of the rider category among our essential workers and how we can reward those low-salary jobs which have proved to be crucial to the very fabric of society; and thirdly, we need to get people trained. A philosophical debate on work will not help, we need a pragmatic approach. We can only move forward if we base concrete proposals on a solid analysis.