Rise in zero-hours contracts, gig economy and unreliable pay have fed revolt, says ILO Director General Guy Ryder
Politicians around the world risk giving more traction to nationalistic movements if they continue to ignore the growing numbers of workers getting a “raw deal” from globalisation, the head of the UN’s labour agency has warned.
The Director General of the International Labour Organization (“ILO”), Guy Ryder, described Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential election and the UK’s vote for Brexit as “the revolt of the dispossessed” and gave a damning assessment of the establishment’s failure to offer an alternative to protectionism.
British-born Ryder said governments had been too quick to focus on headline figures that flattered the state of labour markets since the global financial crisis. In so doing they had failed to scratch below the surface into a world of zero-hours contracts, underemployment and unreliable incomes, he said, as the ILO released research showing a rise in such non-standard forms of employment.
What do we mean when we talk about non-standard employment?
Here’s a useful breakdown: More about our latest report: https://t.co/pyW6O57lVK pic.twitter.com/9IbXCfLpJh
– ILO (@ilo) November 14, 2016
“The societies we all live in are distributing the benefits of globalisation and economic processes extraordinarily unfairly and people think they are getting a raw deal,” Ryder told the Guardian.
Speaking days after Trump stunned the world with his victory over Hillary Clinton, the ILO chief highlighted the common ground between the Republican candidate’s supporters and those who voted for the UK to leave the EU.
“It is the people who feel they haven’t benefited from globalisation and from the EU, from the way things are organised. This is the revolt of the dispossessed in that regard,” he said.
“And the point here is that feeling, that frustration, that disillusionment, I think is very much generated from people’s experience of work. Their exclusion from work, or their insertion in labour markets in conditions, which they find unacceptable.”
The ILO’s mandate centers’ on ensuring what it calls “decent work”. But based on its own findings, the UN agency is facing an uphill battle. Casual forms of work more common in the developing world are being replicated in advanced economies – the “gig economy” – as on-demand services such as Uber and Deliveroo grow.
The ILO report published on Monday finds temporary work, agency work, precarious self-employment and other non-standard forms of employment have become more widespread.
On the ground, that translates into downward pressure on earnings, unreliable working hours and lower access to workplace benefits.
It comes back to the “raw deal” that Ryder talks about.
“If you count somebody on a zero-hours contract as being in work that helps the headline figures. If you look at their life you know that it is not the type of quality, decent work that I think we are all pursuing,” says Ryder, who has headed the ILO since 2012, having started his career at the TUC in Britain.
“People want to know how it can be different and the fact of the matter is, it can be different but it requires us to put the world of work and these tough labour market issues back on the table from which I think they have been unwisely removed by policymakers in recent years.”
His comments reflect the tendency among ministers to focus on record employment levels and falling unemployment, while largely ignoring that wages have stagnated, people have felt pressured into self-employment and millions say they want to work more hours than they can get.
Ryder believes the UK’s vote to leave the EU should be a wake-up call.
“If you take Brexit vote as a faithful reflection of the mood of people, it is not an expression of contentment and satisfaction with a full employment, ‘I’m doing well, I’m getting ahead’, workforce. The message is: ‘We are living this and it doesn’t feel very nice,’” he says.
Again, there are parallels with the US where ILO researchers found 10% of the workforce had irregular and on-call work schedules, with the lowest-income workers the hardest hit.
The agency wants old systems brought up to date to reflect today’s world of work.
Its recommendations for improving the quality of non-standard employment include plugging regulatory gaps to ensure workers are treated equally whatever type of contract they have. The ILO also wants to see minimum guaranteed hours, better social protection and stronger collective bargaining. That includes expanding unions to represent the growing number of workers in non-standard forms of employment.
Ryder also stresses the need for more equal treatment of migrant workers. “If you take seriously the enforcement of minimum conditions, if you take seriously the notion of equal treatment … you disarm and detoxify the labour market worries about undercutting local workers and at the same time you do the right thing by migrant workers.”
The ILO director concedes his agency is asking for a lot. But failure to act will leave voters looking to the “wrong place” for solutions, he says. That warning echoes growing concerns that the nationalist sentiment that boosted Trump will also come to the fore at upcoming votes in Italy, France, the Netherlands and Germany.
“In generic terms, I think people think they have a binary choice in life at the moment,” says Ryder. The options were “more of the same” with an acceptance that inequality would rise further or “defensive, protectionist, nationalistic” movements rejecting the status quo.
“We have to construct something which is different from both of those two poles and to demonstrate, or to convince people, that there are different ways. That we can manage our labour markets,” he says.
“But middle ground between the two binary options requires the hard work of doing some fairly hard engineering of labour markets.”
Furthermore, the establishment must work hard to regain people’s trust, he adds. “People are not necessarily looking to the established institutions or political parties or international organisations, of which I include the ILO, in the belief that we have credible responses. So we have to up our game in that regard.”
Ryder has just been given the backing of his agency to do just that. Last week the director general was re-elected for a second term with support from all three branches of the tripartite agency: workers’ representatives, employers and governments.
Alongside curbing the rise in insecure jobs and the ILO’s work on tackling child labour and forced labour, Ryder is also pushing the agency to anticipate future trends.
He believes the big drivers of change are technology, globalisation, demographics and the need to align jobs and job creation with fighting climate change. All are being explored under a “future of work” programme marking the ILO’s centenary in 2019.
So for an agency that has been through the second world war, the cold war, the fall of communism and the rise of globalisation, the focus now shifts to robots, global warming and the gig economy. But the motivation remains the same and as the world digests the latest political shock, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ryder highlights the ILO’s roots.
“Our historic mandate, and it came after the First World War, is based on the notion that if you want to preserve peace and stability in the world, you have to promote social justice and that has to begin in the world of work.”