This article is part of the 'Advancing gender just economies' series, presented by ourEconomy, ActionAid, FEMNET, Womankind Worldwide and Fight Inequality Alliance.
Speculation around the future of work has dominated policy discussion among governments and international agencies, especially the UN and ILO, in recent years. The debate centers around how technology will disrupt the workforce, with focus on increased automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). This has resulted in various policy recommendations ranging from retraining and upskilling, redesigning education systems, to flexibilisation of jobs.
The World Bank and IMF in their capacity as international financial institutions have also played an important part in the future of work discussion. In the recent World Development Report 2019, the World Bank argues that amidst the era of automation and digitalisation, it is necessary for business not to be burdened by the “rigidities” of labour regulations, implying that labour rights and protections should be sacrificed in the name of job creation and economic growth.
The report also argues that the emerging “gig economy” such as ride-hailing platforms and e-commerce will create more jobs and become the future of work, ignoring the fact that this kind of work will lead to a race to the bottom and how it has led to even more precarious work, especially for women workers, who are over-represented in the informal sector. The report also overlooks the role of women's unpaid care work in the economy and its implications in the changing world of work.
Even though the nature of work has been disrupted by technology before, the key to ensuring workers’ rights, sustainable economies and equitable transition is not making employment more flexible. Such recommendations will only lead to more precarious status for workers and have been criticised by global trade unions. Instead, the key to ensuring that workers can adapt in the changing world of work is through the right to organise, decent work with a living wage, and economic redistribution through equal access to land and resources.
“Empowering” women for whom?
Under the leadership of Christine Lagarde, the IMF claimed it was moving away from structural adjustment programmes and neoliberal policy prescriptions. Yet it is obvious that market fundamentalism still dominates the organisation’s agenda. One of the reforms that Lagarde claimed to push to the forefront is around gender equality. The IMF claims that it has advanced its work on gender issues in recent years through a number of policy analyses and pieces of research. They have a core belief that gender equality can be promoted through integrating women into the workforce. The more women have access to the labour market, the more economic growth and benefits the country will receive. Together with the World Bank, the IMF places much emphasis on ‘fixing’ barriers that would prevent women from entering the markets such as ensuring that women have bank accounts to access financial services.
The IMF argues the more women become workers, entrepreneurs, business owners and have seats in senior corporate positions, the more equality there will be between men and women. While it is crucial that women have equal access to markets and the labour force to men, this approach of “women’s empowerment” is merely employing market-based solutions which the IMF claims can reduce income inequality and strengthen economic resilience. However, having more women in the labour force in its current system that is founded on the basis of labour and resource exploitation, will only result in more women becoming cheap, precarious and informal labour in the market.
The feminist future of work
While technology can cause massive job losses and social disruption such as during the first industrial revolution, it is evident that technology can also be used to enhance productivity and economic growth. Regardless of the trajectory of technology for the future of work, the key question here is how to ensure that our economies are designed in a way that would cause the least disruption to the workers whose livelihoods currently depend on such jobs.
For us, the feminist future of work should designed in such a way that economic growth translates to redistribution of income between capital owners and workers. As productivity and profits have multiplied through technology throughout decades, workers’ wages have remained stagnant or declined while wealth is concentrated among CEOs and investors at a much faster rate. According to Oxfam, billionaires’ fortunes increased by 12 percent last year while 3.8 billion people, or the world’s 50 percent poorest, saw their wealth decline by 11 per cent.
The feminist future of work is not indicated by women’s share in the labour market, but it is indicated by the quality of jobs that women workers have according to the Decent Work agenda, with living wages as well as levels of unionisation in their workplace. To achieve decent work, we also call for the recognition, reduction and redistribution of the unfair disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work. Such is a key to reducing income disparity and ensuring that workers can have safety nets when technological disruption arrives.
To demand decent work and a living wage, as well as economic redistribution for equal access to land and resources and food sovereignty, women’s grassroots movements around the world are calling for a global women’s strike on 8 March 2020. These are the demands put forward not only to governments but also to international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank which have contributed to widening inequality between men and women, the rich and the poor, and rich countries and poor countries. We believe through securing these key demands, women would be able to have the power to challenge the patriarchal norms and shift such unequal power relations.
We invite feminists and allies worldwide to join us on 8 March 2020 for a Women’s Global Strike, wherever you are, and in whatever form of strike you can take to make women’s collective voices heard.