The ILO and Emerging Technologies: Complicated Problems in the Face of Automation - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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The ILO and Emerging Technologies: Complicated Problems in the Face of Automation

The ILO and Emerging Technologies: Complicated Problems in the Face of Automation

The International Labor Organization (ILO) is tasked with bringing together “governments, employers and workers representatives of 187 member States to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men.”1 Over its 100 years of existence, the ILO has dealt with its fair share of disruptors in the global labor sphere.2 In fact, the creation of the ILO occurred in the wake of a “fundamental disruption in the world of work” 100 years ago: World War I.3 However, when the disruption itself threatens not only to change the shape of work, but also to replace and destroy jobs as we know them, such disruption poses a new set of challenges. Automation is exactly this sort of obstacle. While new technologies and automation might make the business world more productive, these advancements also raise interesting questions for how the ILO should proceed: if new technology and automation threaten jobs, how does the ILO’s mission apply when, if operating under that assumption, it must halt the march of progress in order to protect jobs at risk of automation?

There has been no shortage of ILO work done on automation: a simple search on ILO.org yields nearly 900 results dating back as far as 1987, including policy briefs, working papers, articles, and other work product.4 That work has increased in recent years as automation has become more of a concern, with the search yielding more than 100 results each year since 2017, with nearly 200 in 2019 alone.5

The results of this work are just as diverse as the issues that the ILO faces on a broad basis. Different projects yield different opinions, and the results vary widely across countries and sectors. Each assertion made, whether in favor for or against automation in the workplace, yields strong responses against it. It is difficult to distill one single ILO position on the topic: are automation and new technologies good or bad for workers?

Some of the most startling work in terms of the risk of automation destroying jobs comes from the ILO’s 2016 publication entitled “ASEAN in Transformation.”6 The authors of the publication adopted Frey and Osborne’s “seminal approach to quantify the extent to which occupations in the United States can be replaced by modern technology” and applied it to countries in Southeast Asia.7 By applying that approach, the report determined that approximately 56% of all employment in ASEAN countries “has a high risk of automation in the next couple [of] decades.”8 That number ranges from 44% (Thailand) to 70% (Vietnam).9 But even 44% is a startlingly high number; to predict that nearly half of all employment is at a high risk of automation is, at the very least, highly concerning. Further, these changes will disproportionally effect women and workers with less education.10

Some ILO research has suggested that the opposite of public perception is true: that automation can actually create jobs, rather than destroy them.11 After discussing the risks of automation, including a reference to the ILO’s work on the ASEAN countries and the startling results, a 2016 ILO Research Department Working Paper discussed the job-making capabilities of automation and new technology.12 “First, declining working hours and increasing income have led to growing demand for leisure related activities,” which in turn created new jobs in those industries.13 Additionally, the piece argues that the “same process innovations which displace workers in the user industries create demand for workers in the producer industries,” and that all of the new machines will “need to be developed, designed, built, maintained and repaired.”14 Finally, the author argues that the depersonalization of processes as a result for automation will create for a demand for entirely new jobs that provide that personal, human effect in place of the old job.15

In at least one mine in Sweden, automation both created jobs and improved the working conditions of women.16 In this mine, workers work in air-conditioned offices, and “tele-operate the heavy machinery from the comfort of their armchairs, with the help for joysticks and monitor screens.”17 Eighteen percent of the mine’s workers are women, with their sights set on increasing that number thanks to automation.18

In spite of the contradictions mentioned above, and more that exist in other ILO research, the ILO should feel free to continue researching, regardless of the contradictions that arise, in order to further its mission of advocating for workers, improving their conditions, and fighting for their safety across the globe. Flexibility and uncertainty should not only be tolerated in this space, but accepted, encouraged, and further pursued.


  1. Mission and Impact of the ILO, Int’l Labour Org., https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/mission-and-objectives/lang–en/index.htm (last visited Feb. 23, 2020) [https://perma.cc/VGC8-EWJE].

  2. See Work for a Brighter Future, Int’l Labour Org Global Comm’n on the Future of Work 21 (Jan. 2019).

  3. See id.

  4. See Mission and Impact of the ILO, Int’l Labour Org., https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/mission-and-objectives/lang–en/index.htm (last visited Feb. 23, 2020) [https://perma.cc/VGC8-EWJE].

  5. Search for “Automation, Int’l Labour Org, https://www.ilo.org/Search5/search.do?sitelang=en&locale=en_EN&consumercode=ILOHQ_STELLENT_PUBLIC&searchWhat=automation&searchLanguage=en (last visited Feb. 23, 2020) [https://perma.cc/RC29-7WZJ].

  6. Jae-Hee Chang et al., ASEAN in Transformation: How Technology Is Changing Jobs and Enterprises (ILO Bureau for Employers’ Activities, Working Paper No. 10, July 2016), https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_dialogue/—act_emp/documents/publication/wcms_579553.pdf [https://perma.cc/Y4PD-RCB9].

  7. Id.

  8. Id. at 12.

  9. Id.

  10. See id. at 20.

  11. See, e.g., Employment Policy Brief: New Automation Technologies and Job Creation and Destruction Dynamics, ILO Employment Policy Dept. (2017).

  12. See id.

  13. Id. at 10-11.

  14. Id. at 11.

  15. See id.

  16. See Cutting-Edge Mining in Sweden, Where Automation Is the Solution, Not a Threat, Int’l Labour Org (Aug. 19 2019), https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/features/WCMS_715170/lang–en/index.html [https://perma.cc/ZN46-QV3B].

  17. Id.

  18. See id.

John Winton

John Winton is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. He is also the President of the Fordham Irish Law Students Association, a member of the Fordham Dispute Resolution Society, and a member of the Moore Trial Advocacy Center. He holds a B.A. in History from Vassar College.