By Anusha Peri and Ramya Chandrasekhar 

In the first of a two-part post, we look at the threat of automation and its impact on the labour force.

The threat of rapid redundancy of manual and unskilled labour as a result of technological unemployment is imminent, warranting immediate state action.[1] In the current era of artificial intelligence the hitherto unquestioned translation of growth to employment is itself being challenged.[2] Therefore, such a deceleration in employment generation threatens the enjoyment of various facets of a worker’s right to work, particularly of individuals engaged in unskilled and manual labour.[3] Through the course of this paper, the authors seek to prove that increasing automation poses a unique threat to individual right-bearers that traditional human rights jurisprudence, which actively distinguishes between civil political rights and socio-economic rights, cannot address. Therefore, the authors propose that the right to subsistence should be treated as a basic human right, which must warrant provision of a Universal Basic Income (‘UBI’) as the correlative duty.

I. The threat of automation and the changing nature of work

Increased automation and use of highly efficient robots in developed countries reduces the lure of hiring cheap labour from developing countries as robots are considered to be a close substitute for low-skilled workers.[4] This redundancy of low-skilled human capital threatens two-thirds of all jobs.[5] 57% of all jobs in the OECD are threatened due to automation, with developing countries being most prone to this threat.[6] Furthermore, even low skilled labour has undergone a phenomenal change and intermediary platforms that connect providers and users of a service, rope in more and more laborers into the informal sector. For instance, crowd work and work on demand via apps like Uber have become an increasingly common platform for employing and letting go of workers in the current gig-economy. The people working for such platforms have no guaranteed minimum wage or fixed earnings as these forums normally maintain a constant refrain of how the workers are just contract labour or freelance workers who can freely switch between multiple apps.[7] This, in turn, is propelling labour towards a vastly unregulated and informal area.[8] Moreover, the bargaining power that a worker possesses against the employers is reducing as automated hiring and firing policies are usually surrounded by a strong rhetoric of infallible objectivity.[9] Therefore, the unprecedented accelerated pace in technological revolution should not be taken lightly as the governments in the Global South have failed to ‘create’ as many jobs as promised and there is a dangerous rise in unemployment.[10]

We do not argue that the development of systems that automate the repetitive banality of work should be met with resistance; but that human rights discourse needs to develop to buttress this bloom in technology in order to ensure a holistic progress in the quality of life of all. The fourth industrial revolution unlike others demands a commensurate transformation in the lens through which the international community and states view the ethos of ‘work’ itself.

II. Critique of work based conditionality of social security schemes

With the abovementioned bloom in the informal sector, the current social security legislations in most countries are grossly ill-equipped to protect the affected persons. As the ILO notes, “contributory social insurance is linked to employment, either through an explicit link to economic activity as an employee or a self-employed person, or implicitly, on the assumption that contribution capacity equates to a certain level and regularity of income”.[11] Even non-contributory social assistance legislations only regulate workers in the organised sector and disentitle millions of workers that form the backbone of the informal economy.

This illuminates a deeper problem with the traditional conception of work that is glorified in social and political spheres and permeates to legal regulation as well. The deontological argument of having to morally deserve aid by working is heavily flawed and needs to be scrutinized. A simple binary classification of citizens into deserving of aid if they are working or willing to work and undeserving of aid if they are unwilling to work is an unjust categorisation that is wanting of a much-needed deeper analysis of being worthy of aid. A conditional grant of sustenance places the burden of survival of the deprived on the impoverished, as opposed to the state. To aggravate this unjust liability, this burden is often accompanied with a sense of guilt and inadequacy for citizens that do not meet the requirements laid down to receive these benefits. [12] Ironically, this guilt is not shared by the non-working wealthy in a capitalist framework whose money has just been accumulated through centuries.[13]

This exclusion is not restricted to those who do not meet the criteria of receiving State benefits. Iris Young’s conception of oppression through marginalization explains the perpetration of injustice through provision of welfare by depriving them of certain rights and freedoms.[14] Welfare recipients are often socially stigmatized and labeled as undeserving of aid. There is often a constant refrain maintained that welfare recipients are lazy and unwilling to work but are uplifted through public assistance from unjustified distribution of wealth.[15] The traditional approval attached to a working citizen promotes a society where the non-working members are excluded by not granting them any social security benefits and the working members of the impoverished class are also marginalized and stigmatized for receiving benefits. This conundrum is a compelling reason for the State to revisit the significance associated with work in a world where tedious physical labour or routine, cyclical work is rapidly losing necessity and relevance.

We seek to draw a parallel between this fetishisation of work and the Marxist idea of commodity fetishisation – where the value of commodity greatly outweighs the labour of the producer.[16] This idea that the commodity produced is all powerful and can control the agency and purpose of the producer is the main essence of commodity fetishisation.

Fetishisation of the idea of work follows a similar rationale. Socio-legal structures very vehemently entrench the equation between self-worth and work performed by a person. An individual is then forced to work just to feel like she deserves the money she receives forcing her to value work as an all-powerful tool that robs her of her agency and individualistic value. This ties into Iris Young’s explanation of exploitation where she uses the Marxist class divide to prove powerlessness and loss of agency as a form of deprivation.[17]

Policies which have a prerequisite of being employed yet appropriately destitute to be able to avail of its benefits are ineffective if they are not combined with other unconditional schemes. Without unconditional minimum income schemes, it seems that the technological progress that is meant to liberate the working class from routine mundane labour is going to enslave a growing part of the population instead.

In Part II of this two-part post, we discuss how UBI should be made into a basic right and the factors to take into account while doing so.

(This was the winning essay of the 1st JILS Essay Competition, 2018. The authors are recent graduates of the WB National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata)

[1] Anil K Antony, More Robots, Fewer Jobs The Hindu April 12, 2017, available at http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/more-robots-fewer-jobs/article17930408.ece; David Rotman, The Relentless Pace of Automation Mit Technology Review February 13, 2017, available at https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603465/the-relentless-pace-of-automation/; David Rotman, How Technology is Destroying Jobs Mit Technology Review June 12, 2017, available at https://www.technologyreview.com/s/515926/how-technology-is-destroying-jobs/

[2] Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght , The Instrument of Freedom in Basic Income a Radical Proposal for a free society and a sane economy, 6 ( 2017). See also Dan Shewan, Robots will destroy our jobs – and we’re not ready for it The Gauradian January 11, 2017, available at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/11/robots-jobs-employees-artificial-intelligence;.

[3] Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? 22 (2013)

[4] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Robots and industrialization in developing countries, pg 1, UNCTAD/PRESS/PB/2016/6 (October, 2016), available at http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/presspb2016d6_en.pdf

[5] Id., at 1

[6] World Bank, World Bank Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends, pg 52, No. 102725 (2016), available at http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/896971468194972881/pdf/102725-PUB-Replacement-PUBLIC.pdf; UN report

[7] International Labour Organisation, Inception Report for the Global Commission on the Future of Work, pg 21 (2017). See also Hannah Jane Parkinson, ‘Sometimes you don’t feel human’ – how the gig economy chews up and spits out millennials The Guardian (October 17, 2017), available at https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/oct/17/sometimes-you-dont-feel-human-how-the-gig-economy-chews-up-and-spits-out-millennials

[8] Id., ILO at 57. See also Gerald Friedman, Workers without employers: shadow corporations and the rise of the gig economy, 2(2) Review of Keynesian Economics 171, 174 (2014).

[9] Peter Cappelli, We Can Now Automate Hiring. Is that Good? Harvard Business Review (December 12, 2013), available at https://hbr.org/2013/12/we-can-now-automate-hiring-is-that-good; Gideon Mann and Cathy O’Neil, Hiring Algorithms are not neutral The Harvard Business Review (December 9, 2016), available athttps://hbr.org/2016/12/hiring-algorithms-are-not-neutral)

[10] UNCTAD, surpa note 4, at 3. See also Jagriti Gangopadhyay and Wamika Kapur, Unemployment is Up Because ‘Make in India’, Other Official Schemes Aren’t Working The Wire (June, 2017), available at https://thewire.in/146725/unemployment-make-in-india-modi-schemes/ (This piece critiques the ‘Make in India’ scheme, for contributing to the rise in unemployment in India, contrary to the rhetoric espoused by the state surrounding this scheme.)

[11] ILO, supra note 7, at [ ]. Even Contributory ‘social insurance’ legislations in India such as the Employees Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1948 and the Employees Social Insurance Act, 1948 only cater to ‘workers’ or ‘employees’ in factories and establishments.

[12] Iris M. Young, Justice and The politics of Difference 918 (1990).

[13] Michael W. Howard, Basic Income, Liberal Neutrality, Socialism, and Work, 63 Review of Social Economy 613, 623 (2005).

[14] Young, supra note 12, at 297.

[15] Alice Fothergill, The Stigma of Charity: Gender, Class, and Disaster Assistance ,44 The Sociological Quarterly 659, 572 (2003).

[16] Anthony Giddens, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory 42 (1998) (He argues that where the producer contributes toward the creation of a commodity but is completely alienated from the final product itself, she feels devalued and inconsequential as the product is monetarily more valuable and she cannot afford to buy it despite having created it.)

[17] Young, supra note 12, at 311.

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