Sat | Jul 20, 2019

Elizabeth Morgan | Interaction between trade and labour – the future of work in the Caribbean

Published:Wednesday | May 15, 2019 | 12:06 AM

We are apparently in the second machine age of the fourth industrial revolution. Investors want to remain competitive in global trade. The challenges being faced include aging workers in some regions, including the Caribbean; facilitating movement of labour – migration issues; reducing cost of employment-less benefits to workers, more contracts, including zero hour contracts; increasing resort to technology and automation – robots, driverless cars, self-service checkouts, online banking and shopping; digitisation trending towards a “gig” economy with a flexible workforce and hours; new industries – green and blue; re-training of workers, and lack of capacity to respond to evolving requirements of the global labour market. These present risks and opportunities for the Caribbean in investment, trade, employment, and sustainable economic growth and development.

It is recognised that labour plays a significant role in international trade and competitiveness. A study undertaken by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2007 concluded that trade and labour and social policies interact and greater coherence can significantly impact trade reforms and the quality of jobs.

In the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), key related goals are:

- Goal four: quality education that is inclusive, equitable and promotes lifelong learning opportunities for all;

- Goal eight: decent work and economic growth, promoting sustained, inclusive sustainable growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all;

- Goal 17: pointing to partnerships with international trade as a key means of implementation.

Thus here in the Caribbean, where international trade is critical to economic growth and development, we must be aware of the link between trade and labour and be engaged in the discussions now taking place on the future of work in this new industrial age.

Jamaica has been celebrating the highest increase in employment in many years due to investments in trade in services through business process outsourcing (BPOs) and tourism. This employment increase is linked to international trade. Nevertheless, there is concern about our preparations for looming changes in employment, including increasing automation in the BPO sector.

Many countries in the Caribbean commemorate Labour Day in May, most on May 1 to coincide with International Labour Day and its activities. As we in Jamaica prepare to mark Workers’ Week, May 17-24, and Labour Day on May 23, we need to be examining the relationship between trade and labour and building awareness of the ongoing work and discussions on the future of work. I note that during the week, an event will be held to commemorate the centenary of the ILO, 1919-2019, and the Trade Unions Act of Jamaica. I did not see an event on the Future of Work.

This Future of Work question came to my attention when the report issued by the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work entitled ‘Work for a brighter Future’ was recommended as a must read. In addition, in the Barbados Advocate newspaper of May 10, it was reported that on May 8, the Sir Arthur Lewis Distinguished Lecture was delivered by Professor Emieritus Hilbourne Watson on the subject ‘Transnational Capitalist Globalization and Caribbean Future: Unlimited Supplies of Labour and the Robot Rampage’. The professor, it was reported, pointed out that in the production of goods and services, humans are not just competing with but are being replaced by machines, robots, and other smart devices and there are implications for Caribbean.

My research reveals that work on the future of work has been ongoing since 2016, when the World Economic Forum published its first future of jobs report – ‘The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. In 2017, the ILO, approaching its centenary, launched its Future of Work Initiative and established the Global Commission, co-chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of Sweden.

The ILO noted that the world of work is undergoing a major process of transformation due to, among other things, advances in technology and the impact of climate change on production and employment. The Commission’s report will be discussed at the centenary session of the International Labour Conference to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, June 10-21. This conference is expected to be addressed by heads of state and government. Leading up to the conference, the ILO invited member states to organize events to mark the centenary and to discuss the report on the Future of Work, as the initiative is to culminate at the conference.

STUDIES DONE

In preparation for and to ensure its input, the Caribbean has been engaged in studies, consultations and meetings as follows:

- 2017 – ILO/SALISES study on the Future of Work in the Caribbean: What do we know? What do we need to know?

- 2018 – Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) – series on the Future of Work in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Great Opportunity for the Region?

An ILO meeting on the Future of Work in the Caribbean was also held in Panama in October 2018, at which the CARICOM Human Resource Development (HRD) 2030 Strategy and its role in enabling employability was presented.

- 2019 – ILO Bureau of Workers Activities and Office in the Caribbean convened a high level conference on the Future of Work in the Caribbean in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, February 14-15, to encourage discussions in the region.

The 11th Meeting of Caribbean Labour Ministers will be held in Barbados, May 14-15, and the ministers are expected to discuss the ILO’s Future of Work report.

ILO meetings/consultations usually take a tripartite approach involving representatives of government (ministry of labour), employers (employers federation) and workers (trade unions). Given the importance of these discussions on the future of work and the link to trade and development, I would hope that to ensure coherence, consultations on the ILO report would have included other government ministries such as foreign affairs and foreign trade, economic growth and job creation, finance, education, industry and commerce, agriculture, gender and culture, and tourism and that other private sector bodies would be included, such as exporters, manufacturers, the chambers of commerce and small businesses.

At the regional level, I would have liked to read that CARICOM organs, such as the Council for Finance and Planning (COFAP) and the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) as well as the Council for Human and Social Development (COHSOD), reviewed this significant ILO report.

Although there have been some reporting in the media on the future of work, I would like to see more focus on this issue during Workers’ Week and leading up to the International Labour Conference in June.

Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com