AIER attended the 4th Regulating for Decent Work conference held at the ILO in Geneva last month. Clare Ozich from AIER presented a paper along with Colleen Chen from Interns Australia on the rise in organisations advocating for the rights of interns. The paper considers the context in which internships, particularly unpaid internships, are becoming more prevalent and the establishment of different types of organisations and their respective strategies to counter the exploitation of young workers.

The conference was opened by the Director-General of the ILO, Guy Ryder, who commented on the context in which we were meeting:

“even before the [economic] crisis the world of work was undergoing profound changes – as a result of technological change, increased migration, ageing societies and shifting employment patterns – in a direction often away from, not towards, achieving social justice, which is the mission of this Organization where you meet. And these changes will continue and will bring about a very marked evolution in the world of work.”

He went onto discuss the four thematic areas for the ILO’s “future of work” centenary conversations, which are:

  • Work and society – the place and function of work in today’s society (a topic we considered in last year’s Ron McCallum debate)
  • Decent jobs
  • The organisation of work and production
  • The governance of work.

The first plenary that followed set up one of the key themes of the conference: the future of the standard employment contract, and the challenge of non-standard forms of work. The standard employment contract in combination with the welfare state underpinned a period of prosperity and security. However, both have been undermined over the last 30 years with the dominance of neoliberal thought. In an excellent presentation, Professor Judy Fudge argued that as politics and conflict are driving forces in institutionalizing the employment relationship as the platform for labour regulation, it is important to historicise and contextualize both standard and non-standard forms of work in order to develop regulation that addresses how labour power is purchased in differently structured labour markets.

Workshops on this theme considered the notion of “unacceptable forms of work”; the experience of precarious work in various countries and in different forms; and the social and political consequences and contradictions of policies that enable or encourage precarious work.

A related set of workshops considered the new “on-demand” economy being facilitated by new technologies. The business models of enterprises such as Uber, Airtasker and others were looked at in relation to the implications for work and workers. In the United States the courts are playing a key role in regulation. An interesting paper by Antonio Aloisi from Bocconi University in Milan on Commoditized Workers explores many of the issues AIER raised in a recent workshop, in particular the shifting of business risk onto workers.

The economic crisis in Europe, austerity politics and the implications for labour rights was another fascinating discussion in the session: The Impact of Austerity and Labour Law Reforms: The cases of Italy, Greece and Spain, with AGH Guamán, IK Katsaroumpas , AL Loffredo, and RL Lorente. In particular, it was interesting to note that the changes being introduced in countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain are changes we have had in Australia over the last 30 years. For example, focusing collective bargaining at the enterprise level, making unfair dismissal processes more efficient and faster, introduction of new temporary forms of contract and restrictions on union activities. In this instance austerity is shown to be the latest guise for introducing neoliberal policies that undermine the collective and place values of economic efficiency ahead of broader social values.

The above is no more than a small selection of the topics discussed at the conference. Others included regulating domestic work; trade union strategies; working time; migrant workers; and inequality.

The conference website has more details of the papers presented and issues discussed.