Working lives and ‘business as unusual’

Susan Hayter, a senior technical adviser on the future of work at the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO) succinctly described how COVID-19 could change ‘working lives’ of the people across the globe.

With the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic, millions of people around the world changed the way they work. Working from home has become ‘business as unusual’ and this trend is going to change the idea and future of work. While speaking to UN News, Susan Hayter, a senior technical adviser on the future of work at the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO) succinctly described how COVID-19 could change ‘working lives’ of the people across the globe.

Hayter says that before the pandemic, there was already a lot of discussion on the implications of technology for the future of work. “The message was clear: the future of work is not pre-determined, it is up to us to shape it” she said referring to how companies and workers have bow shifted to remote working in order to contain the transmission of COVID-19. This has dramatically changed the way one conceptualizes work and executes assigned duties on a daily basis. What one can see now is that remote virtual meetings have become common with most economic activity transacted through advanced digital platforms.

With the ‘unusual’ becoming the ‘new normal’, Hayter also warned that the idea of an end to “The Office” is certainly overblown. According to the ILO, in high-income countries, 27 per cent of workers could work remotely from home. “This does not mean that they will continue to work remotely. The question is how we can adapt work practices and reap the benefits of this experience with remote working – for employers and workers – while not losing the social and economic value of work as a place”,  she stated. 

Hayter also pointed out that while people celebrate the innovations in work organisation that have supported business continuity during the health crisis, one cannot forget that many will have lost their jobs or gone out of business as the pandemic has brought some industries to a standstill.

She has interestingly made it clear that for workers engaged with labour market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs, “work is not a place, but an activity performed for an income”. The pandemic has revealed the “false choice between flexibility and income security”, she correctly points out. While suggesting that their work is performed under conditions that are safe, she says that ILO estimates a 60 per cent decline in the earnings of the almost 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy in the first month of the crisis.  These workers are not able to work remotely and face the impossible choice of risking life or livelihood.

Here, one is not sure if the multitude of displaced migrant labour/workers who has to shift base or return to their home states in India come under the estimates and the scheme of planning that Hayter is referring to.  The challenge seems clearer in developing and emerging economies. Here, one can see the palpable negative impact of rising unemployment and the futility of digital preparedness. How would India manage the migrant crisis is yet to be fathomed. While the nation state prepares to face the worst under rising number of COVID-19 cases with the utter failure to flatten the curve, the digital transformation of work and possibility to engage in remote work is latched on to limited picture of limited economy. In plain words, it is those in the upper income brackets who are the most likely to choose to work remotely, whereas those in the lowest have no choice; they will have to commute and are more likely to be poor, as Hayter puts it.

First Published:May 30, 2020, midnight