Ramiro Albrieu, Megan Ballesty
This article was published by Southern Voice as input to the UN Secretary-General’s “Our Common Agenda” (OCA).
Picture this: almost 300 million workers will enter the global workforce within the next decade. Only 5 million, however, will be workers from the Global North. The vast majority will live in the Global South –primarily in low and lower-middle-income countries. In times of the 4th Industrial Revolution, the key to the future of work lies in the intersection of the demographic transitions and the reskilling of the Global South labour force.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a General-Purpose Technology (GPT) fuelling a new industrial era. This development is creating new job opportunities for technology-savvy workers, but it also threatens the livelihood of men and women doing routine work, e.g., at an assembly line. A successful readaptation of both skills and labour market institutions is crucial. It is necessary to get workers to stop performing “old” tasks and avoid becoming part of the digital proletariat. So how do these technologies affect the labour market in the Global South, now and in the near future? And what can be done to prepare it for the new scenario?
This global divide in terms of growth and development translates into a worldwide division of labour – ecosystems of production and work that run in parallel tracks at different speeds. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), while the Global North only represents 15% of total employment, it captures more than 30% of global high-skilled jobs worldwide. As specified in a study by Lewandowsky et al. (2019), routine jobs are more pervasive in low- and middle-income countries. It is not bad in itself. Yet, in the fourth industrial revolution era, these are precisely the jobs more susceptible to automation and at higher risk of disappearing. Global South governments need to revert this trend. They have to enable more resilient labour markets and allow workers to thrive in the digital economy.
This divide is also visible in the diffusion of advanced technologies. As “followers” in the previous industrial revolutions, Global South countries have not developed the conditions to innovate systematically or absorb the latest technologies quickly. Indeed, the pace of technological change is slow in the Global South. It puts these economies at risk of being left further behind.
Demographics show that the future of work will take place in low and lower-middle-income countries. For the fourth industrial revolution to be a game-changer worldwide, it needs to consider developing countries’ complex needs and specific contexts. It includes a variety of factors absent in the Global North, which are not at the centre of the global discussions on the future of work.
Both national and international policies to foster technological change and accelerate the reskilling of its labour force are crucial to help transform this opportunity into decent jobs.
First, the international community should support the developing world in accelerating digital transformation and directing it to maximize job creation. There are several avenues for achieving this goal. They range from financing digital infrastructure to encouraging Global North firms to transfer technology and knowledge to the Global South (e.g., via smart interventions in Global Value Chains).
Second, it is paramount to support low-and middle-income countries with knowledge, technology, and, you guessed it, cash. The swift reskilling of those in the current labour market and the millions more to come is an urgent task. It includes promoting inclusive and innovative education and learning schemes and institutions.
Third, the increasing importance of digital labour platforms calls for global cooperation to agree on general principles for fair working conditions. Whether these new intermediaries will improve or worsen working conditions is yet to be seen. Appropriate and coordinated regulations play a crucial role.
Finally, giving more room to southern perspectives in shaping global visions on the future of work is critical. These are thrusting and diverse voices, pushing for more inclusive and innovative labour markets. Yet, the international community has to allow for these voices to be heard and empower them to earn the more prominent space they deserve. Three hundred million future workers need it.
This article showcases a part of Southern Voice’s input to the UN Secretary-General’s “Our Common Agenda” (OCA).
In commemoration of the UN’s 75th anniversary, member states signed a declaration identifying twelve areas of action for global cooperation and recovery. In response to this, the Secretary-General presented the “our common agenda” (OCA) report, making recommendations on fulfilling the twelve commitments of the UN75 declaration.
The office of the Secretary-General invited Southern Voice to contribute to this report. The network had four background notes cited in the final OCA and commissioned four policy briefs from its think tanks in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. These briefs highlight and make recommendations on essential points from the report, including the future of work, multilateral systems, vaccine equity, energy access, and public information.
IDRC has launched FOWIGS—a research program that will help understand how these changes are affecting the lives of the most vulnerable and suggest pathways for an inclusive digital future. The challenges are large and the questions are complex. But we need to face them now more than ever. Stay connected. Learn how.