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What Will Be The Future We Can Expect In Our Working Life?

Players from  a number of areas influencing and creating that new work environment gathered for the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation for a fascinating one day conference on the “Future of Work” in Dublin Castle on the 12th of May.

The main theme of the conference was that technological advances give way to new patterns of work. The conference brought together trade unions, academics, employers (large and gig), and government representatives. The participants were all there to discuss the impact of the new technologies on the traditional employer/employee relationship and the consequences for workers, employers, trainers, educators and legislators.
A key point was reported by one of the millennials on describing the working environment he has been told to expect and prepare for – 5 different careers and 20 different jobs over his working life. The end of the job for life has been truly reached.
The theme of the event was set by Peter Cosgrove, Director of CPL recruitment in his talk “How Technology is Disrupting the World of Work”. He discussed the balance needed between responding to the connectivity and change of modern technologies and maintaining a work environment that is productive in a creative and problem solving way. As he pointed out, peoples best ideas come when they are walking, working in the garden, relaxing and not when they are caught in the web of the internet. The ‘but’ is that an enormous number of the traditional industries have radical changes in their work cycles. Think of hotels and airbnb, bookstores and Amazon, and even publishers with Facebook now the largest publisher in the world. So although the workforce must have time away from technology to think deeply and creatively on the issues they face, they also must have technological skills and understandings that are also constantly evolving.
Jill Spillane, the Director of Accenture’s Centre for Innovation – The Dock, reported that the top 5 skills searched for on Linkedin were invented only in the last 5 years. She said that by 2025 45% of people in the workforce will be on a contractor model of employment – called a ‘Liguid Workforce’. Also needed to handle these changes is a workforce with digital acumen, a commitment to lifelong learning and the ability constantly develop new competencies. If the working world is going to require most workers to change careers(!) 5 times in their lifetime, workers will need to constantly invest in new skills. And if they are likely to only have contracts of employment with on average 2 years, they are most likely going to have to spend their free time training/learning those skills and competencies.
Michael Doherty, Professor of Law, Maynooth University, highlighted some of the key problems for the work environment that needed to catch up with these changes. In the present day, Irish employment law is based solely on an employer/employee relationship, a binary divide. As the nature of employment changes many more workers will fall outside the legal system and therefore outside Protective Legislation (unfair dismissal, fair hiring practices, health and safety protection, holiday and sick pay, maternity/paternity pay, minimum wage) cover. As the discussion progressed it became obvious that the States definition of employee was not going to cover the working practices of many in the future. Prof. Doherty argued that future of work was going to need the added definition of ‘worker’, similar to the one found in U.K. law. In the U.K. the ‘worker’ is an individual who works under a contract of employment and receive limited protections under the law including National Minimum Wage, working time, non-discrimination and ‘whistleblowing’ protection.
Highlighting the challenges going of to the European Court of Justice in relation to Uber (a car ride service). Uber argued at the Court that they are a technology company providing the ‘service’ of a link between independent drivers and the public needing their services. The ECJ ruled that Uber exert a large  of control over drivers, enough to say that the contract is not between the driver/passenger but that Uber runs a transportation business. The ECJ, ruling on the 11th of May 2017, stated that Uber is a taxi company and the court will shortly clarify the implications of the ruling.
Jeremias Prasse is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law,  Magdalen College, Oxford. His special interest and writings include an investigation into the modern definitions of employment relationships. Many can be found in his book “The Concept of Employer” OUP 2015. His new book will be on work in the ‘gig’ economy, as he describes “the crowdsourcing of work” and be titled “Humans as a Service”. It will be out later this year. His argued that if we did not want to see a retrograde employment environment we were going to need to legislate to bring a level playing field to the work environments that included these short term/freelance relationships. He argued that the only way to do this was to have a higher minimum wage to cover the losses in pension/holiday/insurance working ‘gig’ entailed, especially when the hours were piecemeal and insecure. That individuals ratings, a key element of their employability, could travel with the worker so they could change employers without having to start again. Finally that the workers would have the right and ability to collectively bargain about pay and conditions with their ‘employer’.
The International Labour Organization (The ILO) was a key component of the conference. The ILO is celebrating it’s first 100 years with a Centenary Initiative and H.E. Nicolas Niemtchinow, Assistant Director General ILO and Head of Future of Work Unit spoke on the importance the ILO is placing on these debates. Their aim is to ensure that the debate takes place in the member states and dialogue be initiated  to identify key questions and challenges posed by the ongoing changes. Finally the aim is to propose policy recommendations to shape the Future of Work as we want it.
The conference was chaired by RTE’s Industry and Employment Correspondent Ingrid Miley, who kept speakers to timetable, helped clarify questions and ensured that dialogue flowed.
The day was highly informative. I’ve only covered about half of the on stage participants. Debates like this will be very important if we are not going to allow digital disruption to working practices to lead to a race to the bottom for workers with a continued diminution of their rights and pay. As Jeremias Prassl says “People have lived with piecework, zero hours, sub-contracting and outsourcing – all of which are variations on a theme – for a very long time. The platforms are just at the sharper end of the practices.” “The platforms position themselves as the middleman and in that they are no different to the foggers who rounded up men for work in the docks many years ago”, Irish Times, 4/28/17.
The key points I take away is that:
 1/ In future workers will need to constantly up-skilling,
 2/ Contemporary training initiatives and apprenticeships need to be explored
 3/ The legislature needs to take responsibility for the pressure the ‘workers’ who work in the crowdsource environment and Liquid Workforce will find themselves. This is not a completely new work environment, no matter what the Uber’s of the world say, but it is an environment that our Workplace Relations Commission (which covers employee/employer relations) and the Legislative need to come to terms with so that, especially the younger, workers are not forced into a race to the bottom on pay and conditions.

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