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Future of work round table: how has the world of work changed?

The world of work has changed. What have been the most momentous shifts, and how have they affected workers? Twelve respondents take stock before looking to the future.

Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Global patterns of work and employment are now structured very differently today than in the past, due to factors such as the rise of global supply chains, new financial models, the growth of migrant and informal labor, and technological innovations. What do you regard as the most important changes in the nature of work globally, and what have been their primary impact for workers?

Alejandra Ancheita
ProDESC

Shawna Bader-Blau
Solidarity Center

Anannya Bhattacharjee
Asia Floor Wage Alliance

Luis C.deBaca
Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center

Han Dongfang
China Labour Bulletin

Lupe Gonzalo
Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Theresa Haas & Penelope Kyritsis
Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network

Emily Kenway
Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)

Reema Nanavaty
Self-Employed Women's Association

Elizabeth Tang
International Domestic Workers Federation

Alison Tate
International Trade Union Confederation

Alejandra Ancheita

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Alejandra Ancheita is the founder of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project (ProDESC) in Mexico City.

The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 brought about enormous changes for workers in Mexico. NAFTA was supposed to improve working conditions and labour rights. Instead it established a series of measures that effectively reduced the possibilities for workers to strike or bargain collectively.

The rights of rural and indigenous communities to the land and natural resources around them were also affected by NAFTA-related economic policies. People who used to work as farmers found themselves migrating to the nearest cities or north to the United States. So while the introduction of neoliberal policies after NAFTA positively affected corporations, it negatively affected labour. For Mexican workers both precarity and informality have grown over the past 25 years. Mexico is considered an emergent economy, but around 60% of the population is living in poverty. Inequality is an enormous problem in Mexico, and the living conditions of the general population in comparison to the economic elite is very bad.

Precarity has become the general rule for workers in Mexico and Latin America more generally. Most workers are not able to collectively organise as an independent union. They are not able to create contracts through collective bargaining. Their instability affects their other rights, and many no longer have access to the right to housing, health, or education for themselves or their families.

Violence in the factories has also increased. By violence, I mean that the employer is not paying extra hours and not providing workers with the legally required worked environment. Managers are verbally abusive. Female workers suffer sexual harassment, and so on. In such environments, where it is so difficult for workers to demand respect of their basic labour rights, they also have little success in demanding the right to collectively bargain.

Shawna Bader-Blau

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Shawna Bader-Blau is Executive Director of Solidarity Center.

While much about the nature of work has stayed the same for decades, I would highlight a few changes over the past 50 to 70 years that have had a real impact on working conditions globally. These factors are setting the groundwork for the future of work.

I'd start with the creation of the Bretton Woods institutions after the second world war: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the other sister organisations. Their approach to rebuilding the world's economy developed in the context of the fight between capitalism and communism and between different forms of democracy and authoritarianism.

These institutions emphasised the need to establish global free trade, interconnectedness, and private-sector growth in both norm and practice. From this point onward, you started to see a real push on things like the flexibilisation of labour markets and the loosening of labour laws. The Bretton Woods institutions used loans and rules enforced on poorer countries to weaken labour laws, to limit public budgets and public spending, to institute fees on health and education, and generally to instil a notion of private sector growth in countries.

This trajectory has continued with force throughout the past seven decades. We have gotten to a point where in more and more countries it's hard to do very simple things like form unions or come together as workers to achieve collective bargaining. In many countries the right to strike has been dismantled, and the concept of the right to employment has been eliminated almost everywhere. That has really affected the nature of work. We've seen not only increasing crackdowns on unions and union rights, but also growth in short-term, temporary, and flexible forms of employment.

The growth of global free trade agreements in recent years have exacerbated this trend. These are really massive investor treaties that enormously privilege the rights of investors over the rights of humans and the rights of workers. Individual rights continue to be constrained at the national level, while investment flows are governed at a global level. It has been very disproportionate growth – investors over humans.

Finally, the massive growth of technology, which has had so many amazing benefits for all of us, has also allowed private sector companies to extend their reach in pursuit of the cheapest inputs, labour, and distribution services. Today's global supply chains contain large quantities of temporary and contract labour. There is virtually no legal accountability for lead firms when it comes to human rights, as they subcontract out the vast majority of the work – and their responsibility. This means workers are not only being driven farther and farther apart from each other, but they are also becoming more distant from the forces of capital impacting their day-to-day lives. These factors together have had a massive negative impact on the world of work.

Anannya Bhattacharjee

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Anannya Bhattacharjee is the International Coordinator of Asia Floor Wage Alliance.

I would say two things. First, the structure of production itself has changed considerably. A large part of production now takes place through global production networks, which has really changed how responsibility is distributed. Multinationals outsource their work to other regions where labour is cheaper. In doing so they evade the responsibility of actual production, yet still benefit from the cheaper cost of production. The growth of those global production networks has definitely been a key change that has affected workers' lives.

Second, we have seen the growing dominance of short-term, extremely insecure employment relationships, where employers actively recruit the most vulnerable parts of the population. We've seen large numbers of people moving from rural to urban areas in search of work, because they see the growth of industries there as a source of jobs. However, once they enter those jobs they understand very quickly how torturous the employment is. That is a huge lesson for them. The insecurity of their employment and the extremely exploitative conditions of their employment conspire to make it very difficult for them to voice their grievances or seek justice.

FOLLOWUP

How have the lives of informal workers' improved or degraded over the past several decades?

REEMA NANAVATY

Anannya Bhattacharjee is right that for many rural workers, migrating to urban areas seems like upward mobility. But the formal sector can’t absorb them when they come to the urban areas, so they end up working in jobs where there’s no social protection or legal contracts. Their lives are very precarious. SEWA conducted a study shortly after the global economic slowdown in 2008. The Indian government claimed that the country hadn’t been affected, but we found that workers in informal trades like waste collection, agriculture, or garments were no longer being paid and were returning home. They had come to the cities perhaps eight or 10 years earlier, and now they had to move back to the villages. It was extremely difficult for them.

For women doing home-based manufacturing in rural areas, life has not become better for them either. Their work is also now much more precarious. Take hand-rolled Indian cigars. Ten years or so ago, if a woman was rolling cigars she would have been doing it for a single company. It was permanent work. That doesn’t happen anymore. For many women, full employment in a particular kind of trade or occupation is no longer an option. They have to continuously shift. Today they roll cigars, tomorrow they're in packaging, the next day they’re making incense sticks. It’s precarious work for meagre wages, and with longer hours than before.

On top of that, they find that this employment opportunity – which they thought would alleviate their poverty and which is why they migrated – actually pays very little. They are barely able to manage their expenses and go into increasing amounts of debt. They are surprised by how little it really helps them to economically better themselves. This is how workers experience it.

Many workers these days are also women workers. They experience an amazing amount of sexual harassment and compulsion to engage in sexual activities to keep these jobs. So there is another layer of violence that comes through because again, as I said, the point is always to recruit the most vulnerable workers in this type of production.

But as bad as it is, it's usually not as bad as going back. These are situations of relative misery. In urban jobs they're just barely able to meet their expenses to keep their body and mind together. They are able to feed themselves and their families. Many suffer from severe malnutrition, but feeding themselves badly is still better than hunger or starvation.

So it's really a question of relative misery. They have something, but it is nothing close to decent jobs. In India job creation is really the creation of miserable jobs. What is I think is very disturbing about all this is that it really wouldn't take much to make these jobs more decent.

RESPONSE SPOTLIGHT

The future of work and the future of poverty

ALF GUNVALD NILSEN

In addition to being a sharp diagnosis of the emerging world of work under capitalism in our times, Bhattacharjee’s observations also point us towards an important insight about poverty in the Global South. It is created and reproduced through global production networks.

The emergence of global production networks since the late 1970s has been propelled by transnational corporations relocating parts of their production process – in particular labour-intensive manufacturing – from the Global North to the Global South. The industrialisation of Southern economies has, in turn, resulted in a massive increase in the size of the global working class. In fact, the global workforce doubled between 1980 and 2005. This transformation also accelerated economic growth, and low-income countries became middle-income countries as they were integrated into global production networks.

Consequently, actors such as the World Bank and the OECD consider participation in global production networks to be an important precondition for successful development. However, there is an inconvenient fact that is often left out of these policy narratives. As development economist Andy Sumner demonstrated in his book Global Poverty, as many as 70% of the world’s poor currently live in what the World Bank refers to as middle-income countries. Put slightly differently, one billion poor people live in countries that, since the early 1990s, witnessed economic growth precisely because of their integration into global production networks. These countries are, in principle, capable of ending poverty among their citizens. Read on...

Luis C.deBaca

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Ambassador Luis C.deBaca, of Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center, directed the U.S. Office to Monitor/Combat Trafficking in Persons under President Barack Obama.

One of the most concerning trends is that developed countries have allowed their labour inspectorates to be weakened over time. They used to have governance and institutions that were sufficient to engage on behalf of workers. Now they are more like those of developing countries in terms of their inability to investigate.

Labour departments around the world in the '60s and '70s were actually quite active. Companies worked to undercut them by attacking their budgets and statutory authority. In other words, they attacked inspectors’ ability to force change in the workplace. This dismantling of labour ministries and labour inspectors, along with the dismantlement of the ability to unionise through globalisation, are to me both very important changes.

That shift has meant that some of the slack has been picked up by the prosecution function of the state. Police and prosecutors must now deal with forced labour and horrible worker mistreatment, often in cases where it never would have gotten so far if there had been proper administrative enforcement by labour inspectors.

In the 1990s, we at US Justice Department's Involuntary Servitude and Slavery Programme found ourselves pushing Congress to give us a criminal labour violation with the prospect of jail time. What was happening was that labour inspectors were coming to prosecutors and saying these guys keep flaunting the civil penalties. They’re eating the fines as a cost of doing business – we need make this criminal. We had ended up in a situation where prosecution and law enforcement had to come in because the more effective labour response had evaporated. That's not good. You never want to have criminal law enforcement driving social policy or standards out in the workplace.

The consequence of that for workers is that the stakes get a whole lot higher. If the only tool available is criminal law, what gets done to you has to be worse for the government to care. The level of proof necessary also goes way up, and companies are probably going to fight the case much harder.

Also, if we’re forced into saying that something is slavery or trafficking in order to go after somebody, it exempts companies from having to create better workplaces by making only the most egregious important. I think there is a huge danger in us setting up entire work-related regulatory schemes around these terms of slavery and trafficking.

It would be like trying to plan a response to childhood exposure to violence, and then only dealing with murder. You have to look at all the stages and degrees of severity that come before that. If murder is all you do, then you end up not dealing with the entire thing that gets you to the place of murders. It's the same thing here. If you're not dealing with wage theft, if you're not dealing with hours worked, if you're not dealing with the ability to act through unions, then don't be surprised when the most horrendous violations of enslavement and abuse end up happening.

Han Dongfang

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Han Dongfang is the Executive Director of China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong.

The globalised and fast-changing supply chain model of production sets workers further and further away from each other even as the goods they produce become ever more closely related within a highly globalised market. Unfortunately, while this process was happening neither national nor international trade unions found a way to effectively respond to this new reality. The extra wealth created by this globalised production model is disproportionately distributed. Far more of it reaches the hands of capital than those of labour, and far more ends up in developed countries than developing countries.

As a result, on one hand, the price of the products remains low. Consumers, including working families in the developed world, are able to consume more. On the other hand, the income of the workers producing these goods in faraway countries also remains low.

This new reality impacts workers in many ways, but the two most detrimental factors are the difficulty in organising, both locally and internationally, and the loss of local and global bargaining power.

Lupe Gonzalo

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Lupe Gonzalo works with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

From the perspective of my community and my home country, but also from that of many American workers, corporations have evolved over the past several decades in ways that have greatly increased their power. They have taken advantage of that power to effect political change. Their actions have also forced workers and entire communities to leave where they originally are from in order to seek out work to survive.

What workers find out through the migration process is that the places they arrive to have the same types of abuses as the places they came from. They left to seek better jobs and better lives. What they find are incredibly abusive situations, this time exacerbated by the fact that they are now in a new place where they don't know the laws and where they don't know their rights. Now it is even easier for people to take advantage of them. That has been the biggest impact that we've seen for these communities.

In this new context companies take advantage of any crack of vulnerability that they can find in order to profit as much as possible. At the end of the day their one concern is how much money they can make. It's a deeply problematic and abusive situation where both governments and companies are able to push for certain policies without thinking about the humanity of workers and their families. This is how we've ended up with conflicting sets of economic and immigration policies that first pressure workers to migrate and then allow them to be exploited and abused when they arrive.

Translated by Marley Moynahan at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

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Theresa Haas & Penelope Kyritsis

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Theresa Haas is Director of Outreach and Education at the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) Network.

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Penelope Kyritsis is Outreach and Education Coordinator at the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) Network.

Penelope: Among the most striking changes in the nature of work concerns the rise of global supply chains and relatedly, the increase in outsourcing and sub-contracting practices. This re-organisation of production has given multinational corporations the ability to dictate costs along their supply chains. They use their market power to pressure suppliers to cut prices, a practice which allows an ever greater share of the profit to concentrate at the top while margins are further and further squeezed down below. These changes have enabled a consolidation of corporate power of multinational corporations as buyers at the top of supply chains.

At the end of the day, those most affected by this price squeeze are the workers at the bottom of supply chains. Supply chain dynamics and buyer practices have made it very difficult for suppliers to maintain successful commercial relationships and comply with labour standards, including minimum wage laws, at the same time.

Theresa: The consolidation of corporate power and the rise of global supply chains have created intense competition between suppliers. The easiest way for suppliers to compete is on the basis of price, and the easiest way for them to lower prices is by squeezing not only direct labour costs but also associated indirect costs. That means, for example, not providing appropriate fire safety equipment or seating in a factory, or paying the legally mandated premium for overtime.

Concentrated corporate power combined with intense competition among contractors has also allowed firms to shorten lead times. Buyers at the top of supply chains can pressure suppliers to deliver goods faster, more quickly, and more cheaply. This puts an incredible squeeze on workers financially, physically, and emotionally that really embodies this idea of a race to the bottom.

Penelope: A lot of times when people talk about labour exploitation they talk about it as if it's an unintended consequence of business practices. However, labour exploitation is an integral part of the design of global supply chains. When the idea is to get goods as cheaply as possible by outsourcing costs it's inevitably workers who pay the price.

Theresa: I think responsibility lies almost exclusively with the brands at the top of supply chains. They have intentionally restructured their industries in almost deity-type ways. The production of many products bound for the US market used to take place exclusively in the US, often by suppliers wholly owned by the retailers. That system had a number of flaws from a business perspective, one of which was that the retailer and the supplier were one and the same. That put a significant, exclusive amount of responsibility on the retailer for the conditions of the supplier.

By outsourcing production, buyers distanced themselves from that responsibility. At the same time they created an intense amount of competition that has driven down prices. Suppliers are really caught in a bind there, but I don't think brands are at all. Brands have done this intentionally because it is in their best interest to outsource production, deny responsibility, and drive down prices.

RESPONSE SPOTLIGHT

From brothels to independence: the neoliberalisation of (sex) work

AVA CARADONNA

For decades, the British sex industry has straddled both informal and illegal work. This is because while the buying and selling of sex is technically legal in the UK, everything that produces the exchange of sex for money – advertising, employing support staff, renting premises, working collectively – is criminalised. As a result, our workplaces in ‘flats’ (small scale brothels), saunas, and hostess clubs have never been stable or safe places.

There has never been any job or income security in the sex industry. You only make money if it is busy, and the ‘house’ takes a percentage of your earnings – sometimes as high as 65-70%. However, up until recently, the way the system usually worked was that the flat manager would cover overheads. Buildings come with rent, utilities, and maintenance costs. Venues also need interior decorating, furniture, bedding, towels, equipment, and cleaning, and in our corner of the service industry also condoms and lube. Bosses would produce and place ads in newspapers and cards in red telephone boxes. They would provide security and often a receptionist, who would screen clients either on the phone or at the door. Similar arrangements existed for escort agencies, although in their case workers were often required to sort out somewhere to receive ‘in-calls’.

While we were never paid for the hours spent waiting for clients, and while we had to cover the cost of our own work clothes and grooming, sex workers were not expected to invest time, money, and skills into our work when we were not on the job. Our only investment in marketing was the construction of a work persona. This persona existed in clearly demarcated ways. It appeared when we came into direct contact with clients – either in the room, when actively earning money, or when introducing ourselves to potential clients – and disappeared just as quickly. This meant that sex work was clearly defined as a labour practice within time and space. A job with its uniforms and costumes, tools and office politics. A performed role, which you could stop performing when not actively working. In the past five to ten years, this has changed completely. Read on...

Emily Kenway

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Emily Kenway is senior advisor on human trafficking and labour exploitation at Focus on Labour Exploitation. Until recently she was private sector adviser to the UK’s office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

Changes in the way production is organised, rather than changes in the nature of work per se, are what determine the constraints and opportunities around work and the potential for rights in labour. Over 80% of goods and services are traded through supply chains today in an incredibly complex, globalised system of production. Thousands of sub-contractors and suppliers operating below intricate transnational corporate structures now relate to the eventual end product or service.

This works really well for capital, essentially because it fragments the power dynamics in production. That, in turn, fragments responsibility and creates a vacuum of accountability in relation to labour rights. The London construction sector is a good place to see this in action. It is common to find workers on a site who do not know what company they're working for, because the work has been sub-contracted out so many times. So these chains obfuscate who the ultimate employer is. That's not a term that the corporate sector is that happy with. But if you look at the power dynamics down these chains you can see that the lead companies at the top are, to some extent, shaping the conditions and possibilities for workers’ terms much lower down.

Legal frameworks have not caught up with this at all. A worker's labour rights may fall in between different national jurisdictions, or between different nodes of a supply chain within a country. Millions of workers around the world are bound into this system, but without clarity on how to leverage those chains for their benefit, or where to direct claims and grievances to achieve change.

This whole picture of fragmentation and inaccessible accountability is compounded by two further issues. They're often talked about as if they've changed, but the ways they haven't changed are more important. The first is informal labour. It has always been a significant constituent part of the economies of the Global South. People think of informal labour as somehow anachronistic, and assume that sectors will formalise over time. People often talk about this in relation to domestic labour, as it has particularly high rates of exploitation. Yet that formalisation isn't happening, and in general the informal sector is actually growing.

The other thing is that while migrant labour has grown – that's a change – the more important issue is that we still haven't learned to protect them. They remain, largely, excluded from labour rights protections. The UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families was finalised in 1990 but so far it has had very low levels of ratification. It hasn't succeeded.

Taken together, these factors have created a situation where responsibility chains are totally obfuscated; where capital has free movement but labour rights have not gone with it; and where you have growing parts of the labour market – informal and migrant labour – that are under-protected. It's a really disenfranchised, under-protected labour market that benefits capital above all else.

Reema Nanavaty

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Reema Nanavaty is Director of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA).

When people speak about global changes in working conditions the informal sector is completely left out. Workers in the informal sector often work out of their homes, so even though the majority of workforce in India and in the Global South are informally employed their work remains invisible. This means that most policy debates end up only discussing self-employed or informal workers from the point of view of advanced economies.

The informal sector is growing. When the Self Employed Women's Association started in the 1970s in was around 90% of the Indian economy. Now it's around 95%. Part of the reason for this growth is internal migration. Informal workers migrate to the cities from rural areas and are only able to find precarious and menial kinds of work.

For informal workers in India and the rest of the Global South, innovation is an in-built part of their coping strategy. There is no security of work – the informal sector resides outside the purview of government policies – so workers have little choice but to continuously change their work and adjust to newer skills. So, one day I might be an incense stick roller or an Indian cigar roller, then I might have to suddenly move to packaging, and from packaging I might suddenly move to finishing ready-made garments.

As innovation as a daily coping strategy for informal sector workers remains unrecognised, many questions crucial to policy remain unasked. Everybody talks about skilled development or life-long learning, but what does life-long learning mean in an informal context? What kinds of skills or schools are required? These questions remain unanswered.

That home-based workers are often found in rural areas also affects workers' positions within global supply chains. Does any major company directly work with these informal sector workers? No, they do not. They just cannot afford to. They are scattered, they work out of their homes, their tools are worn out. These workers don't know where the raw material comes from or where the finished product goes to. Therefore, it is very convenient for brands at the top to just work with the intermediaries. That is why, despite their putting in so many long hours of work, the informal sector workers do not get their fair share of income.

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Elizabeth Tang

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Elizabeth Tang is the General Secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation.

Most of the changes are actually nothing new. We have been talking about capital moving around, the exploitation of workers in so-called third world countries, migration, and the casualisation of labour since the seventies. What's new is that advances in technology have intensified them.

More women are migrating. Not just so-called professionals or people with high levels of education are chasing better work, but also comparatively uneducated women with little English from rural areas. This happened before but not at this scale.

Technology is, I think, driving this shift. Lots of domestic workers are now migrating solely through the information they find on websites, not only with the help of an agency. It's now easier for them to make the move on their own. Before it was just doing what a man told them to do. They didn't have anything concrete, many didn't get so much as a piece of paper from the agent. Now they have access to recruiting websites on their phones. There's a lot of information there, it's all written down, so it seems more real and more secure. It's not, but it creates that impression.

The catch is that when they finally get a job there is no protection. The website might have said $10 per day or $200 per month before they started work, but if that doesn't materialise there is nothing they can do. They aren't protected by anything. It's true that many more countries have passed laws regarding domestic workers, but they are not enforced. So what looks concrete, real, and precise actually turns out to be fluid.

The other big change is that worker security has either greatly diminished or gone away entirely. Nobody has a life-long guarantee for their job, and pension systems almost look like dinosaurs now. The line between informal workers or casual workers and workers with formal jobs has actually become very very small. In both situations what you have is not secure.

Discrimination hasn't changed too much, but it's important to note that it remains as alive as ever. The IDWF gets constant feedback on working conditions from its members, and the most common word we hear is discrimination. Once people know you are a domestic worker, they immediately think you are stupid. You are dirty. You are not made for anything better than to clean. They never realise that they depend so much on domestic workers, that their lives would be completely disrupted without them.

Lots of domestic workers are also migrants, and as migrants they also face another layer of discrimination. Add that to being a domestic worker, and people really have no respect for them. It is very hard to ask for legal protections when the people around you do not think you deserve them.

Alison Tate

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Alison Tate is Director of Economic and Social Policy at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

From a labour perspective the really important changes are the impacts of trade and globalisation on business models, and the creation of global supply chains. These have led to greater exploitation in the modern age. There's a lot of discussion today about poverty alleviation and bringing people out of the most extreme forms of poverty through wages and access to income. But what we've seen in the last 10 years is a model of business that undermines the capacity for job security and income security. This of course leads to a spectrum of exploitations.

If you look at the global workforce, it's about three billion workers. Only 60% of those are in formal work, and the majority of workers around the globe, no matter what level of development, are in insecure work. They don't know what their next week or their next month looks like in terms of their income. For those 40% of workers in informal work, they don't have the recognition of an employment relationship with their employer or recognition under law. That level of insecurity is a very stressful and sometimes leads to desperate situations.

Many are working in less and less secure conditions, but they might be more concerned to keep their job than to speak up or complain. It is the experience of many workers that joining a union or taking collective action means risking retaliatory action from employers, not being assigned work or shifts, or the risk being sacked. Freedom of association, collective bargaining, social protection are fundamental workers’ rights are recognised in international law. They are for all workers.

No job should be without a floor of universal social protection, which includes certain benefits for when a worker is not able to access sufficient income. No worker should be without a minimum living wage, or the capacity to bargain for a fair contract price floor. Yet that's what we're seeing more and more in the digitalised and platform economy.

RESPONSES

This project is supported by the Ford Foundation but the viewpoints expressed here are explicitly those of the authors. Our support is not tacit endorsement within. The aim was to highlight new ideas and we hope the result will be a lively and robust dialogue.


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