Comments to a view from India of the Future of Work


It really seems (almost) like Italy. Or Europe. Or…

Comments to a view from India of the Future of Work /img/one-world.jpg

The world is one these days, and I found further proof of this in an essay on future of work in India. In that essay, that is part of a Field Guide to the future of work by the RSA Future Work Centre, U. Aneja makes a very important point:

“Global narratives thus need to be localised and re-examined, otherwise there is a risk that dominant techno-imaginaries will remain misaligned with the needs of a bulk of the world’s population… With over 7 million young people entering the workforce every year, and over 80 percent of the population engaged in the informal economy, securing decent work is an urgent and pressing priority, even without factoring in the impact of technological disruption.”


Three likely featurs of the future world of work in India

According to the essay, these features are:

First, the number of good jobs are likely to decrease, restricting socio-economic mobility.

For many Indian workers, a formal ‘desk-job’ or ‘white-collar’ job represents a way out of poverty and insecurity. Such jobs are already very few [and,] as businesses adapt to new technological possibilities, many of them will further disappear. [This will make giving] a leg up to India’s unskilled or low-skilled labour even more difficult.

Second, informality will be an enduring, if not accelerating, condition of Indian labor markets. The growth of the platform economy in India is likely to create new micro-entrepreneurial opportunities for workers, [but also] to reproduce if not expand informal and precarious conditions of work in India.

The organised economy is also increasingly shifting to contract and temporary work. The manufacturing sector, for example, is witnessing a growth in employment, but the largest share of this is contract work, not permanent employment. Digital platforms and new communication and data sharing solutions are making it easier to break down work into smaller tasks and then outsource it to the most cost-effective bidder across multiple geographies.

Third, socio-economic inequality is likely to deepen. India is already one of the most unequal countries in the world and labor’s share of national income is in decline. Only [the few] with the requisite skills will be able to leverage new opportunities, with women, and other marginalised social groups having even less opportunities. [Women] are also more likely to [have the jobs] most vulnerable to the effects of automation. The platform economy could give women greater access to flexible work, but this will also reproduce the gendered division of labor.

Other important observations, and the essay’s conclusion

  • Predictive analytics and artificial intelligence technologies are also changing hiring and firing practices. The use of AI to hire staff and measure their performance could in theory root out the bias that is inherent in every workplace - a pressing problem in India due to its caste, class and religious divisions. Yet emerging evidence suggests that automated systems tend to reproduce these biases, either because of programmer bias or because of unrepresentative data sets.
  • Economic growth in India is decoupled from employment growth
  • Despite high rates of GDP growth, bad jobs continue to outnumber good jobs
  • An over-supply of [digital platform] labor has meant a race to the bottoms in terms of wages and exploitative terms of engagement

The essay concludes that “Technology trajectories can, and should, be shaped to align with broader societal goals. Certain technological choices might be more suited to a labor surplus economy like India, while others may be more appropriate from an equity perspective. Automating manual scavenging for example is preferable to the roll-out of driver-less cars. We need to shift from the current framing of innovation possibilities in terms of sectoral advances, to a socio-technical view of innovation that considers not only expected productivity and efficiency gains, but also the distribution of these gains across society. At stake are the livelihoods of 1.3 billion people.”

Seen from here…

My instinctive, very western, very “first world” reaction while reading that essay was noticing that it does not mention environmental issues at all.

Then I noticed how all this is happening to 1.3 billion people who are just one mountain range away from another billion or so of people who are facing, or will soon face the same problems.

Then I noticed how, and how much, the situation in India is very similar to the one here in Europe. Of course, many “primary” problems are much bigger and much more urgent than in India than in Italy, or anywhere in Europe. I do not deny or minimize that in any way.

It is equally true that, in India, things are happening not just at a much bigger scale, but quicker, because it leapfrogged several steps that took many decades to happen here, in a much shorter time.

But the trends, the forces at work, and (at least) the kind of short/medium term effects described in that essay are exactly the same.

Maybe the only substantial differences (how substantial, and what that implies, is another matter) are the status of “conversations about data privacy”, women rights and, of course, the exact composition of the same time bomb that is ticking in both areas, that is demography.

For now, the only small contribution I can offer to solve these problems together is this talk I gave in 2017 in Trivandrum. I would really appreciate feedback from India on this, as well as opportunities to work together along those lines.

(This post was drafted in April 2020, but only put online in August, because… my coronavirus reports, of course)

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