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The Future of Work: The World Needs a New Business Model

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
(Illustration: intararit/Shutterstock)

(Illustration: intararit/Shutterstock)

The future of work is now. If we fail to address the challenges of today we fail to generate the jobs of tomorrow.

The dignity of work is uncontested and both personal despair and social tension emerge when people are without employment and income.

Sharan Burrow is general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.


Unemployment is still at historically high levels, the informal economy is growing, the participation of women has stalled and the marginalization of young people is both an economic and social crisis.

The world needs a new business model.

The world's GDP has trebled since 1980, yet inequality is at historic levels. The hidden workforce of the richest companies in the world work long hours for poverty wages, too often in unsafe environments or with unsafe products.

While global Internet penetration has increased by one billion people in the past four years, half the world’s population does not have Internet access and indeed one quarter still have no electricity. This can only exacerbate economic inequality between countries.

Climate change is already threatening lives and livelihoods with extreme weather events and still 75 percent of the world's people have no or inadequate social protection.

We can do better.

The global need for infrastructure, assessed to be $90 trillion by 2050, can be both a catalyst for job creation and an opportunity to ensure the vital green infrastructure required for a zero carbon future.

Recognizing and formalizing jobs in the renewal and expansion of natural carbon sinks with reforestation and land care is both a win for emissions reductions and a win for jobs. Likewise, expanding jobs in rescue, re-building, and resilience in response to natural disasters is necessary.

Justice and equality for women doesn't start or end with the G20 target for a 25-percent increase in women's participation, but this means jobs. To enable this participation requires investing in the care economy—child care, aged care, health, and education—to help women join the workforce in greater numbers, and this investment will provide even more jobs.

But the future of work must be decent work.

With only 60 percent of the world's workforce holding a formal economy job and more than 50 percent facing increasingly insecure work, there is a problem. Likewise with 40 percent of the workforce struggling to survive in the informal economy and up to 30 million trapped in modern-day slavery the quest for full employment and decent work is the central challenge.

Globalization has changed our world but has not delivered rights for workers or safe and secure work for enough people. With global supply chains now accounting for more than 60 percent of global trade in the real economy it is an exploitative model that is fueling inequality, failing to pay minimum living wages, denying fundamental rights, and holding back development.

The International Trade Union Confederation’s Frontlines Poll’ recently surveyed thousands of people in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany. When asked if global companies could be trusted, more than 50 percent of people from developed countries said no. A quarter said they didn’t know, leaving just two in 10 who admitted trust in the status quo.

And almost 80 percent of people in major producer countries of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Turkey want business to pay a decent minimum wage to all workers in their supply chains.

Another eight in 10 thought companies did not take workplace safety seriously, putting profits ahead of people.

Corporate social responsibility is an $80 billion industry and it has failed. The model is corrupted and the people of the world know just that.

We need the rule of law.

The rule of law requires legislation. It requires judicial systems that are based on rights established by the International Labor Organization and transparency—a judicial system that promotes responsibility and, when that fails, ensures remedy.

We need labor market institutions that promote and police wage distribution mechanisms—minimum living wages and collective bargaining—based on the fundamental guarantee of freedom of association.

And we need governments that prioritize the basic income and services that ensure sustainable and peaceful communities.

The 2015 ITUC Global Rights Index found, in almost 60 percent of countries, certain types of workers are excluded from their fundamental labor rights. Seventy percent of countries leave workers with no right to strike. Two-thirds of countries deny workers collective bargaining rights, and in more than half of countries in the survey governments deny workers access to the rule of law.

Labor is not a commodity, a principle at the very heart of the Constitution of the International Labor Organization, yet the world's workforce of around 2.9 billion people is increasingly seen by major corporations as just that.

Both the G7 and the G20 have these issues on their agenda.

Full employment and decent work with gender equality and social protection for all must be critical elements of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to be settled this year.

Nation and industry plans for a just transition to a zero carbon economy are critical to ensure sustainable business necessary to both fight climate change and to invest in green jobs.

Investment in jobs and realizing full employment and decent work as part of the U.N. sustainable development goals—this is the only future for work.


For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.