How can work in the 21st century be better for workers? | What's Left

It won't come as a surprise that capitalist think-tanks are putting forward a vision of work that should trouble anyone who works for a living. Groups such as the Policy Network and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) promote future dystopia for workers where the nature of our work is perpetually precarious, privatized, and fully market-driven. It is a vision where robots, computer programs, and artificial intelligence replace all of the world's jobs that defined and established today's affluent worker.

Page content

This futurist view of the economy has been driving policy changes in education since at least the mid-nineties. As a result, expert panels and policy programs have successfully implemented the marketization of education by increasing tuition fees; the commercialization of university research; the corporatization of research and education institutions; the merging of industrial, government and university research and development into the university system; the adoption of “market” reforms in education services; and the cutting of skills and literacy programs for the unemployed.

In Ontario, the Liberal government is doubling down on this futurist vision of work launching yet another “expert panel”, this one on growing the “highly skilled workforce” of tomorrow. Unfortunately, what appears to be missing is any thought on the role of government in directing or mitigating the development of the so-called new economy.

The Liberal party’s analysis is heavily tilted towards supporting the development of an economy of hyper-precarious workers through private, market-driven education. Their view is grounded in the finance and technology sectors’ anti-historical view of innovation that focuses on the role of the individualized worker in skills development rather than the employer or government. Their future Utopia is one where all workers are individual entrepreneurs who drive innovation with a limited role for government or industry. The worker alone is supposed to predict and bear the brunt of technological change in the workplace, fund their own skills development, constantly drive productivity and, on top of all that, be content with their jobs eventually being replaced by a robot made elsewhere.

Missing from this vision is the evolution of the social safety net that protects workers from the increased risks resulting from precarious employment. There is no examination of how the gains won by workers through workplace democracy will be sustained through time, or how these workers will collectively represent their interests.

In response, labour and student unions need to demand a transformation of the state, including socializing the risks of precarious work. In the end, this debate will depend on the forms these social supports take. These reforms should be public, not private; tax-funded, not financialized; structural, not merely responsive; and universally accessible, not designed only for the destitute.

For this to happen, the left has to play a role providing a vision for a worker-focused technological future. There are many positive aspects of adopting technology in work and life, but not if we let all the benefits go to an exclusive club of capitalists and owners. This analysis must consider the negative consequences of adopting technology – to the environment and to social and international development.

In addition to outlining the future that workers deserve, there are two questions socialists need to come to terms with:

  1. What do workers need governments to do?

  2. How will workers be able to organize and represent themselves in the mean time since the current crop of liberal governments will likely offer little regulation or protection?

• [[][Premier Names Panel to Develop Highly Skilled Workforce Strategy to Advise on Adapting to Demands of the Knowledge Economy]]

Training and protecting in the innovating economy

Jan 2016 Monitor: The Future of Work