Meeting of BRICS Ministers of Labour and Employment

How can BRICS countries leverage technology to achieve decent work for all?

The potential of the digital economy must be harnessed to help address the challenges facing the world of work said ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, at the Labour and Employment Ministers meeting of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa on 9 October.

Statement | 09 October 2020
Chair, Ministers,

At the beginning of this year none of us could ever have imagined the future of work that now confronts us all.

Lockdown, self-isolation, social distancing, telework. These have had profound effects on the world of work.

Effects that will be long lasting, and a significant acceleration in the digital transformation of economic activity may well be one of them, on top of the transitions already underway driven by automation, changing trade patterns, demographics and climate change.

This combination of crisis-related and pre-existing structural dynamics could create a perfect storm of challenges for decent work in the future, and for the eradication of poverty and other aspects of human security.

It will therefore be crucial that we successfully harness the potential of the digital economy to create more and better jobs that reduce poverty and enhance human dignity.

Of course, new technologies can provide windows of opportunity for emerging economies. Experience shows that they can help countries leapfrog into advanced technologies and industries.

Yet, they also create new challenges. The increasing use of artificial intelligence and automation in manufacturing may result in jobless growth if excess labour is not absorbed. In some BRICS economies, premature deindustrialization has already started to raise concerns about the impact of advanced technologies. And there are other major issues to address, such as data privacy, workers’ protection, and the need to widen access for all population groups.

So the question is, how can BRICS countries leverage technology to achieve the goal of decent work for all?

Let me give you two examples: investing in public service delivery, and enforcing labour regulations.

Firstly, public employment services. These services have increased their efficiency and outreach through the use of digital tools to match jobseekers with vacancies, to deliver training and to provide career counselling. With the COVID-19 crisis, they faced a double challenge: protecting both staff and clients. This has meant often closing frontline offices and reducing staff on site, while maintaining services and support for both workers and enterprises affected by the pandemic. Most did this by moving their operations online. Those countries that had previously invested in digital infrastructure found it easier to make this transition. Their investment has paid off, signifying the importance of a “whole of government” approach to technological adoption.

And secondly, technologies can help increase compliance with labour regulations. Working time is an example: Digital record keeping is more transparent than paper-based methods. It is more likely to ensure wage protection for hours worked and compliance with working time regulations. Technologies can also use data to better assess the risk of non-compliance and to better use scarce resources through targeted inspection and enforcement.

In a similar way, Ministers, digital technologies can be used to support fair recruitment processes, and to ensure valid and secure job contracts.

In short, technology is a tool that can strengthen labour inspectors’ ability to detect, prevent, and remedy decent work deficits.

But if BRICS countries are well placed to leverage technologies for decent work, this will not happen automatically. It will require a number of targeted policy actions.

I want to highlight six of those actions that I think are particularly important.

Firstly, investing more in digital infrastructure: Most BRICS countries have made progress in widening access to digital technologies, but further efforts and financing are required to fill in the remaining blank spots on the digital map, and to upgrade the infrastructure.

The second challenge, which I’ve referred to already, is ensuring personal data privacy and protection: Data privacy norms and regulations are required to ensure proper handling of personal data. The challenge is to ensure the implementation of data privacy regulations and to extend these protections to all categories of workers.

The third challenge is the targeting of vulnerable groups, to ensure that the fruits of technological advances are shared equally. Measures here are needed to help the less digitally literate and those who simply do not have access to technology, so that existing inequalities are not exacerbated and to ensure universal access to public services.

The fourth challenge is regulating the digital labour platforms that are widespread in all BRICS countries. This is the subject of much current debate. To take just one example, are digital platforms covered under the Private Employment Agencies Convention of the ILO, No. 181, like traditional private employment agencies? That is a question for the ILO’s tripartite constituents to determine; but in any case, they need to be regulated properly, and governments need to align the practices of digital labour platforms with employment services, to ensure decent work.

The fifth challenge is reducing the skills gap: Technical training and educational institutions will need to adapt their curricula so that workers can develop the skills that they will need in the digital economy, in the context of lifelong learning systems that ensure employability over the entire life cycle.

Ministers, the final challenge I would like to mention relates to innovative partnerships that will be needed to design and enhance digital strategies. Led by member Governments, the BRICS group could bring together private organizations, public regulation agencies and of course workers’ and employers’ organizations, to develop technological innovations to protect workers’ rights, while raising productivity that can be scaled and replicated in a variety of different contexts.

Ministers, let me conclude by sharing a couple of thoughts on the way forward.

While the future trajectory of the pandemic remains highly uncertain, its economic and social impacts are likely to be with us for many years ahead.

The world is facing a major long-term disruption in the world of work.

In this context, I want to underline that the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work provides a human-centred approach that addresses those disruptions and transformations. And it provides a more than ever relevant route map for confronting the challenges ahead, including those that come from digitalization.

It focuses on building better, fairer societies that invest in people’s capabilities, in sustainable decent jobs and enterprises, and in the institutions of work.

These are all crucial elements of the path of recovery, and crucial areas of work for the BRICS, to advance the implementation of these key components of the human-centred approach to the future of work. I think we must include within those efforts the transition from the informal to the formal economy, the effective realization of gender equality and the eradication of child labour.

In that regard, I would like to recall that 2021 is the UN International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, and we thank South Africa for its kind offer to host the next Global Conference on the Sustained Elimination of Child Labour.


Let me conclude by once again sincerely thanking the Russian Presidency for its leadership, and offering the ILO’s full support to the incoming Presidency of India.

Today’s discussion shows once more that BRICS Labour and Employment Ministers consistently address critically important issues, which stand high on the ILO’s own list of priorities as well.

The high quality of the BRICS Statement that you are considering for adoption today confirms the relevance and importance of our work.

The ILO remains strongly committed to working with BRICS, and we reiterate our appreciation of our productive partnership over the years.

Thank you.