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Last Tuesday I spent my workday at SACTWU summarizing a report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) regarding the future of work given automation, AI, and a move to sustainability. This change in work will create millions of new jobs, but, as economies become centered around less resource-intensive industries, other jobs will disappear. Those who will lose their jobs are the least prepared to seize these new economic opportunities. The report proposed a “human centered agenda for the future of work” to shift the economy to “produce the goods, infrastructure and services that both create jobs and improve living standards.” ILO recommends 10 steps to achieve this agenda – guarantee lifelong learning, establish a universal labor guarantee, incentivize businesses to think long-term, among other recommendations.

As an environmentally conscious person who appreciates innovation, this report let me indulge in a future where everything would work out. Maybe I can have self-driving cars, lab grown meat, and other advancements. Maybe those who lose their jobs will be the ones to prosper through new economic opportunities. While I have never really believed these maybes to all be possible, I’ve always been more enthusiastic than hesitant when considering future work. It helps that as an aspiring lawyer I’m not immediately threatened by changes like automation.
But, my attitude toward understanding the impact of the future of work has shifted from academic to personal. Every day at SACTWU I meet factory workers. Their jobs will be the first to go. Union officials seem to understand this reality, giving workers’ access to new training as their old jobs in factories advance. Some workers do not agree, claiming no machine will ever manufacture clothing by itself. When they claim this, I don’t know what is denial or what is ignorance. Even if workers are retrained, that’s just a temporary fix.

I still want to see a world with sustainability and technological advancements. It makes sense to use a machine that works ten times faster at a fraction of the cost. In theory, phasing out the poor conditions and wages associated with factory work should be done. But, ILO’s report is utopian. Now that I know some of those who will be affected by future changes, I’m unsure where to go from here.