World Day of Social Justice

On the World Day of Social Justice, governments and UN leaders call for decent work on digital labour platforms

News | 23 February 2021
On the occasion of the World Day of Social Justice, the ILO and the Permanent Mission of the Kyrgyz Republic to the UN convened a policy dialogue under this year’s theme "A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy”, chaired by H.E. Mrs. Mirgul Moldoisaeva, Permanent Representative of the Kyrgyz Republic to the UN and moderated by Ms. Beate Andrees, Special Representative to the UN and Director, ILO Office for the UN. As technological developments and the digital economy continue transforming the world of work and the digital divide is leading to deeper inequalities, policies are needed to ensure a human-centred, decent future of work, especially on digital labour platforms. The event also served as the launch of the ILO’s World Employment and Social Outlook 2021 report entitled, “The role of digital labour platforms in transitioning the world of work”. The report provides insights into how digital labour platforms are transforming the world of work and the implications of that transformation on businesses and workers.

Over the past decade, expansion in broadband connectivity, cloud computing, and data have led to the proliferation of digital platforms, which have penetrated a number of sectors of the economy and societies. Since early 2020, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to remote working arrangements and allowed for the continuation of many business activities, further reinforcing the growth and impact of the digital economy. Mr. Guy Ryder, Director-General, ILO underscored that the crisis has exposed stark inequalities within and between countries; there is a growing digital divide within, between and across developed and developing countries, particularly in terms of the availability, affordability and use of information ICTs and access to the internet, deepening existing inequalities. Coherent policy action will be needed to leverage technologies and create decent work opportunities for the future. H.E. Mr. Kanybek Adiev, State Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Social Development, Kyrgyz Republic, stated that, “employment is essential to addressing many broader social challenges, including reducing poverty, increasing economic productivity and strengthening social cohesion”.

H.E. Mr. Munir Akram, President of ECOSOC and Permanent Representative of Pakistan, highlighted that enabling access to the internet and overcoming the digital divide will be essential to create digital jobs and ensure social justice. Digitalization is a precondition for recovering from the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and developing countries cannot be separated from this sector, which promises the greatest growth for the future. H.E. Mr. Björn Olof Skoog, Ambassador, Head of the Delegation of the EU, underscored that world of work was being transformed at an unprecedented scale, and noted that the green and digital transitions should enable fairer and more inclusive societies. Implementation of international labour standards must be at the core of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the digital transition has to cater to all, be human-centred and contribute to sustainable development.

During the presentation of the ILO report “The role of digital labour platforms in transitioning the world of work”, Ms. Martha Newton, Deputy Director-General for Policy, ILO, stated that, while digital labour platforms were offering job opportunities and flexibility, especially for women, persons with disabilities and young people, many challenges remained. Digital labour platforms are redefining economic relationships established through technology, and there are significant concerns regarding freedom of association, collective bargaining, social security coverage, inadequate earnings for workers, long and unpredictable hours, and discrimination and harassment. Many speakers emphasized the need to protect labour rights both offline and online. Fundamental principles and rights at work have to be provided for platform workers.

Ms. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), highlighted that 60% of the global workforce was in the informal sector, with many platform businesses in the sector. Lack of employment contracts and social protection in the platform economy was a growing concern. A social protection floor for all workers was needed along with an adequate minimum wage and occupational health and safety protections. Mr. Roberto Suárez Santos, Secretary-General, International Organisation of Employers (IOE), emphasized the importance of formal employment, which many new platform businesses were creating. Digitalization had allowed a number of start-ups to grow, thereby bringing innovation, new ideas, opportunities and access to new markets. There was an urgent need to expand connectivity and associated infrastructure in order to prevent a widening digital divide.

Mr. Craig Mokhiber, Director of the New York Office, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), underscored that the positive and negative impacts of digital labour platforms depended on regulation of, and engagement with companies. He emphasized that economic and social rights, including labour rights, were universal human rights, which applied to every individual, thereby applicable both offline and online. Dr. Kelle Howson, Postdoctoral Researcher, Fairwork Foundation, Oxford Institute, University of Oxford, presented findings of the annual ranking of digital labour platforms. While the platform economy could lead to more precarious work, it was also possible for digital labour platforms to provide decent work opportunities. Unfair practices in the platform economy proliferated a regulatory blind spot in many countries. Effective regulation was urgently needed.
The discussion highlighted that policy challenges were even more complex for developing countries. Addressing the impacts of digital labour platforms, many developing countries lacked access to the Internet. and efforts were needed to enhance digital literacy in order to leverage the opportunities provided by the digital economy. The digital divide was considered as a human rights and a labour rights issue, as it was causing exclusion across developed and developing countries. The panellists emphasized the need for cross-border collaboration and international dialogue on infrastructure, accessibility and connectivity, in order to tackle growing inequalities.

Leveraging the potential of digital labour platforms will be dependent on a combination of soft-law initiatives, country-level solutions and coordinated international efforts. With the appropriate regulation, governments can ensure that human rights, labour rights, environmental protection and equality is promoted and protected. Social dialogue between workers, employers and governments must guide the future of digital labour platforms. Whether platform workers were classified as employees or as self-employed and regardless of where they work, they should enjoy the right to associate, to bargain collectively and to be protected against discriminatory conduct and unsafe workplaces. Policy frameworks are needed to ensure full and productive employment and decent work for all with full enjoyment of their fundamental principles and rights. Participants concluded that unacceptable working conditions in the analogue world of work were equally unacceptable in the digital world.