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The future of work in the post-Covid-19 digital era

The coronavirus crisis has spurred the growth of online work. The genie is not going back in the bottle and we must plan for a future of ‘decent digiwork’.

Maria Mexi

The trend of working online from afar is experiencing a crucial boost, as Covid-19 compels companies and organisations to impose mandatory work-from-home policies in an increasingly ‘no-touch’ world. The sudden switch to remote digital work, overnight and en masse, has the potential to accelerate changes in how work is performed and the way we think about working arrangements.

Looking at the broader picture, Covid-19 may prove to be a major tipping point for the digital transformation of the workplace. It looks near impossible to put that digital genie back in the bottle, once the health emergency is over.

As the virus keeps spreading, some employees will be working from home—and in digitally-enabled environments not bound by a traditional office space—for the first time. Their working lives will be hugely disrupted and upturned. Yet, for millions of workers around the globe doing ‘gig’ work, moving their working lives online isn’t new. It’s just business as usual.

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Especially for crowdworkers in the gig economy, ‘work’ is not a place: it is a web-based task or an activity, which can be done from any location that allows for internet connectivity. Many millennials and Generation Zers are living the gig-economy model today precisely for the flexibility and freedom remote digital work can offer. Covid-19 could be the catalyst which takes the evolution of ‘work anywhere’ arrangements to the next level of growth, in ways that considerably improve opportunities to collaborate, think, create and connect productively.

Huge strain

Not all is rosy, though. Currently, Covid-19 is putting the low-paid contingent of gig workers, often linked to digital platforms—such as ride-hailing and food delivery—under huge strain. After doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, gig workers lacking any or adequate access to employment-insurance benefits or sick leave are the hardest hit in the United States, Europe and Asia. In countries with some of the biggest clusters of cases, such as Italy, some couriers working for food-delivery apps still go to work because they can’t afford not to.

Thus, the Covid-19 crisis leaves especially those who depend on gig work as their primary source of income extremely vulnerable to (fatal) health risks. It undermines their dignity and it intensifies social and economic divides which may potentially generate new cleavages, anger and political discontent in countries and regions.

As the crisis evolves, gig workers won’t be the only ones suffering even more than usual. The International Labour Organization published a ‘high’ global unemployment estimate of 24.7 million because of Covid-19 in mid-March; a week later, the head of its employment policy department warned the outcome could be ‘far higher’ still. By comparison, global unemployment increased by 22 million in the 2008-09 economic crisis. It is also expected that, worldwide, there could be as many as 35 million more in working poverty than before the pre-Covid-19 estimate for 2020.

Important message

These statistics send an important message: Protecting workers against the adverse impacts of the crisis is not only about increasing protection for typical jobs. It is also about including and protecting better those working at the margins: non-standard workers in tourism, travel, retail and other sectors most immediately affected, dependent self-employed persons with unstable incomes, zero-hours workers and low-paid workers in precarious working conditions who stand to gain little from the various countries’ latest packages of emergency measures, as recent evidence shows.

Persistent gaps in social-protection coverage for workers—in ‘old’ and ‘new’ forms of employment—constitute a major challenge for our labour markets in the post-Covid-19 environment. This matters particularly for the future of the work we want to create in the digital era. We need to facilitate digital work, for the many benefits it can offer businesses and workers. But we must not allow this to assume a form for workers—unprotected and socially deprived—too common in today’s gig economy.

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Next to the deadly human toll, the war metaphors which have been recently invoked by world leaders in the fight against Covid-19 reveal an uncomfortable truth. We are confronted with the flaws and fundamental weaknesses of our labour-market and social policies, solidarity mechanisms and models of collective responsibility for managing the risks that weigh unfairly and gravely on the most vulnerable citizens.

Decent digiwork

What can be done? A more expansive, resourceful and inclusive recovery is crucial, so that the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on labour markets becomes less far-reaching. We need to make our digital future immune to the ‘virus’ of precarity, with our labour markets built on the principle of human dignity and the potential of ‘decent digiwork’ for all.

This is a vision of full participation in a digital-work future which affords self-respect and dignity, security and equal opportunity, representation and voice. It is also about defining a ‘digital responsibility by default’ model—an entirely different mindset in society as to the role of governments and the private sector, in ensuring labour standards are updated to respond better to the evolving reality of digital workplaces.

In these tragic circumstances, there is a lesson for the future: the experience of gig workers shows going digital means more than just shifting channels. It is about refitting our labour markets, social-protection and welfare systems and making sure everyone has the ability to realise the human right to social security in the post-Covid-19 digital era. No society and no organised democracy can afford to ignore the vulnerable situations of workers who have few social protections yet are critical in a crisis.

Done right, we can shape a fair future of work. More than ever before therefore, the message for policy-makers, employers, workers and their representatives is straightforward: prepare for the next day. Bring precarious digital work into the realm of social protection. Take action for decent digiwork—now.