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‘Business as unusual’: How COVID-19 could change the future of work

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Millions of people around the world have been working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic and now experts are asking whether this “business as unusual” could be the future of work, at least for those people whose job doesn’t require them to be tied to a particular location.

UN News spoke to Susan Hayter, a Senior Technical Adviser on the Future of Work at the Geneva-based International Labour Organization, about how COVID-19 could change our working lives.

What are the longer-term effects of the pandemic on the workplace in developed countries, once the immediate crisis is over?
Before the pandemic, there was already a lot of discussion on the implications of technology for the future of work. The message was clear: the future of work is not pre-determined, it is up to us to shape it. 

However, that future has arrived sooner than anticipated as many countries, companies and workers shifted to remote working in order to contain the transmission of COVID-19, dramatically changing how we work. Remote virtual meetings are now commonplace and economic activity has increased on a range of digital platforms. 

As the restrictions are lifted, a question that is on everybody’s mind is whether this ‘business as unusual’ will become the ‘new normal’. A few large companies in developed economies have already said that what has been a large and unplanned pilot – remote teleworking – will become the standard way of organizing work. Employees need not commute to work again, unless they choose to do so.  

Is this a good thing?

This may indeed be cause to celebrate, for people and the planet. But the idea of an end to “The Office” is certainly overblown. The ILO estimates that in high-income countries 27 per cent of workers could work remotely from home. This does not mean that they will continue to work remotely. The question is how we can adapt work practices and reap the benefits of this experience with remote working – for employers and workers – while not losing the social and economic value of work as a place.   

In celebrating the innovations in work organization that have supported business continuity during the health crisis, we cannot forget that many will have lost their jobs or gone out of business as the pandemic has brought some industries to a standstill. For those returning to their place of work, the quality of work will be a key issue, in particular safe and healthy workplaces. 

What needs to happen next?

The degree of workers’ trust in the measures taken by employers to make workplaces safe, will no doubt have an impact on the return to work. Engagement with trade union representatives, where these exist, is a must. 

Everything from protocols for social distancing, monitoring and testing, and the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) need to be discussed to make this work. 

For workers in the gig economy, such as food delivery and ride-hailing workers, work is not a place, but an activity performed for an income. The pandemic has revealed the false choice between flexibility and income security. These workers may have no or inadequate access to sick leave and unemployment-insurance benefits. We need to tap into the brave new world to ensure that their work is performed under conditions that are safe. 

How different do you expect the workplace in developing countries to look?

The ILO estimates a 60 per cent decline in the earnings of the almost 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy in the first month of the crisis.  These workers are simply not able to work remotely and face the impossible choice of risking life or livelihood. Some countries have adopted measures to shore up this essential income while also ensuring adequate hygiene and PPE for employees and customers, informal enterprises and workers. 

As companies begin to evaluate the effectiveness of the shift to remote work and their ability to tackle data security concerns, new opportunities may open up in services for developing countries with the necessary infrastructure. 

However, these off-shoring opportunities in activities such as software development and engineering to financial services, may be accompanied by the reshoring in of other jobs as companies seek to improve inventory management and the predictability of supply chains. 

This will have longer-term effects on employment in developing and emerging economies. The challenge is that while it will take time for new service sectors to mature, the negative impact of rising unemployment will be felt immediately. Inequalities in digital readiness may further inhibit countries from seizing these opportunities. 

What are the benefits and drawbacks of remote work?

The shift to remote work has enabled many companies to continue to operate and ensure the health and safety of their employees. Those able to make the transition to remote work during the health crisis have had the opportunity to share meals with their families. Work has become human-centred to accommodate homeschooling and child and elder care.  

Yet, the lines between working time and private time have become blurred for these individuals, causing an increase in stress and exposure to mental health risks

In the face of a dramatic economic downturn caused by the pandemic and surging unemployment figures, there are opportunities to leverage these changes in work organization to design new job-sharing schemes that allow for flexibility and save jobs. This may mean shorter work weeks or work-sharing arrangements to avoid furloughs in lean times, while reshaping working time arrangements to achieve better work-life balance in the longer-term.

The digital transformation of work and possibility to engage in remote work has also been accompanied by other benefits. It has presented possibilities for older, more experienced workers to prolong their working life on their terms and provided work opportunities for those in rural communities. However, for many others, it has compounded a sense of isolation and a loss of identity and purpose. The social value of work and the dignity and belonging we derive from it cannot be replaced by virtual rooms, no matter how casual our attire while we occupy them. 

To what extent will the pandemic entrench rising inequality?

 While the pandemic may represent a tipping point for the digital transformation of the workplace, it has also revealed deep fault lines. It is those in the upper income brackets who are the most likely to choose to work remotely, whereas those in the lowest have no choice; they will have to commute and are more likely to be time-poor as a result. 

Looking to the future, as digital and online work becomes the new normal, the demand for skilled workers is likely to rise along with their wages. The contributions of care-workers and other workers (e.g. teachers and staff in grocery stores) will be more highly valued than before. Yet, many low-paid workers whose wages have been stagnating in the face of declining union power and a shifting employment relationship are likely to see their incomes eroded even further as the ranks of the unemployed increase. 

Historically, economic shocks, pandemics and wars have exacerbated inequality. The remaining question is whether this one will be a tectonic shift with rising political and social instability, or a shock that leads us to reinforce the foundations of just societies and the principles of solidarity and democratic decision-making that move societies, labour markets and workplaces in the direction of equality. 

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No let-up in Indian farmers’ protest due to subconscious fear of “crony capitalism”

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The writer has analysed why the farmers `now or never’ protest has persisted despite heavy odds. He is of the view that the farmers have the subconscious fear that the “crony capitalism” would eliminate traditional markets, abolish market support price and grab their landholdings. Already the farmers have been committing suicides owing to debt burden, poor monthly income (Rs. 1666 a month) and so on.”Crony capitalism” implies nexus between government and businesses that thrives on sweetheart deals, licences and permits eked through tweaking rules and regulations.

Stalemate between the government and the farmers’ unions is unchanged despite 11 rounds of talks. The farmers view the new farm laws as a ploy to dispossess them of their land holdings and give a free hand to tycoons to grab farmers’ holdings, though small.

Protesters allege the new laws were framed in secret understanding with tycoons. The farmers have a reason to abhor the rich businesses. According to an  a  January 2020 Oxfam India’s richest one  per cent hold over four times the wealth of 953 million people who make up the poorest 70 per cent  of the country’s population. India’s top nine billionaires’ Inc one is equivalent to wealth of the bottom 50 per cent of the population. The opposition has accused the government of “crony capitalism’.

Government has tried every tactic in its tool- kit to becloud the movement (sponsored y separatist Sikhs, desecrated Republic Day by hoisting religious flags at the Red ford, and so on). The government even shrugged off the protest by calling it miniscule and unrepresentative of 16.6 million farmers and 131,000 traders registered until May 2020. The government claims that it has planned to build 22,000 additional mandis (markets) 2021-22 in addition to already-available over 1,000 mandis.

Unruffled by government’s arguments, the opposition continues to accuse the government of being “suit-boot ki sarkar” and an ardent supporter of “crony capitalism” (Ambani and Adani). Modi did many favours to the duo. For instance they were facilitated to join hands with foreign companies to set up defence-equipment projects in India. BJP-ruled state governments facilitated the operation of mines in collaboration with the Ambani group  just years after the Supreme Court had cancelled the allotment of 214 coal blocks for captive mining (MS Nileema, `Coalgate 2.0’, The Caravan March 1, 2018). Modi used Adani’s aircraft in March, April and May 2014 for election campaigning across the country.

“Crony capitalism” is well defined in the English oxford Living Dictionaries, Cambridge and Merriam –Webster. Merriam-Webster defines “crony capitalism” as “an economic system in which individuals and businesses with political connections and influence are favored (as through tax breaks, grants, and other forms of government assistance) in ways seen as suppressing open competition in a free market

If there’s one”.

Cambridge dictionary defines the term as “ an economic system in which family members and friends of government officials and business leaders are given unfair advantages in the form of jobs, loans, etc.:government-owned firms engaged in crony capitalism”.

A common point in all the definitions is undue favours (sweetheart contracts, licences, etc) to select businesses. It is worse than nepotism as the nepotism has a limited scope and life cycle. But, “crony capitalism” becomes institutionalized.

Modi earned the title “suit-boot ki sarkar” when a non-resident Indian, Rameshkumar Bhikabhai virani gifted him a Rs. 10 lac suit. To save his face, Modi later auctioned the suit on February 20, 2015. The suit fetched price of Rs, 4, 31, 31311 or nearly four hundred times the original price. Modi donated the proceeds of auction to a fund meant for cleaning the River Ganges. `It was subsequently alleged that the Surat-based trader Laljibhai Patel who bought the suit had been favoured by being allotted government land for building  a private sports club (BJP returns ‘favour’, Modi suit buyer to get back land, Tribune June21, 2015).

Miffed by opposition’s vitriolic opposition, Ambani’s $174 billion conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd. Categorically denied collusion with Modi’s government earlier this month. Reliance clarified that it had never done any contract farming or acquired farm land, and harboured no plans to do so in future. It also vowed to ensure its suppliers will pay government-mandated minimum prices to farmers. The Adani Group also had clarified last month that it did not buy food grains from farmers or influence their prices.

Modi-Ambani-Adani nexus

Like Modi, both Adani and Ambani hail from the western Indian state of Gujarat, just, who served as the state’s chief for over a decade. Both the tycoons are reputed to be Modi’s henchmen. Their industry quickly aligns its business strategies to Modi’s nation-building initiatives. For instance, Adani created a rival regional industry lobby and helped kick off a biannual global investment summit in Gujarat in 2003 that boosted Modi’s pro-business credentials. During 2020, Ambani raised record US$27 billion in equity investments for his technology and retail businesses from investors including Google and Face book Inc. He wants to convert these units into a powerful local e-commerce rival to Amazon.com Inc. and Wal-Mart Inc. The Adani group, which humbly started off as a commodities trader in 1988, has grown rapidly to become India’s top private-sector port operator and power generator.

Parallel with the USA

Ambani and Adani are like America’s Rockefellers and Vanderbilt’s in the USA’s Gilded Age in the second half of the 19th century (James Crabtree, The Billionaire Raj: a Journey through India’s New Gilded Age).

Modi government’s tutelage of Ambanis and Adanis is an open secret. Kerala challenged Adani’s bid for an airport lease is. A state minister said last year that Adani winning the bid was “an act of brazen cronyism.”

Threat of elimination of traditional markets

Farmers who could earlier sell grains and other products only at neighbouring government-regulated wholesale markets can now sell them across the country, including the big food processing companies and retailers such as WalMart.

The farmers fear the government will eventually abolish the wholesale markets, where growers were assured of a minimum support price for staples like wheat and rice, leaving small farmers at the mercy of corporate agri-businesses.

Is farmers’ fear genuine?

The farmers have a logical point. Agriculture yield less profit than industry. As such, even the USA heavily subsidies its agriculture. US farmers got more than $22 billion in government payments in 2019, the highest level of farm subsidies in the last 14 years, and the corporate sector paid for it. The Indian government is reluctant to give a permanent legal guarantee for the MSP. In contrast, the US and Western Europe buy directly from the farmers and build their butter and cheese mountains. Even the prices of farm products at the retail and wholesale levels are controlled by the capitalist government. In short, not the principles of capitalization but well-worked-out welfare measures are adopted to sustain the farm sector in the advanced West.

Threat of monopsonic exploitation

The farmers would suffer double exploitation under a monopsony (more sellers less buyers) at the hands of corporate sharks.  They would pay less than the minimum support price to the producers. Likewise, consumers will have to pay more because the public distribution system is likely to be undermined as mandi (regulated wholesale market) procurement is would eventually cease to exist.

Plight of the Indian farmer

The heavily indebted Indian farmer has average income of only about Rs. 20000 a year (about Rs. 1666 a month). Thousands of farmers commit suicide by eating pesticides to get rid of their financial difficulties.

A study by India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development found that more than half of farmers in India are in debt. More than 20,000 people involved in the farming sector died by suicide from 2018-2019, with several studies suggesting that being in debt was a key factor.

More than 86 per cent of India’s cultivated farmland is owned by small farmers who own less than two hectares of land each (about two sports fields). These farmers lack acumen to bargain with bigger companies. Farmers fear the Market Support Price will disappear as corporations start buying their produce.

Concluding remarks

Modi sarkar is unwilling to yield to the farmers’ demand for fear of losing his strongman image and Domino Effect’. If he yields on say, the matter of the farm laws, he may have to give in on the Citizenship Amendment Act also. Fund collection in some foreign countries has started to sustain the movement. As such, the movement may not end anytime soon. Unless Modi yields early, he would suffer voter backlash in coming elections. The farm sector contributes only about 15 per cent of India’s $2.9 trillion economy. But, it employs around half its 1.3 billion people. 

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Brighter Future Waits Ahead

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Our footprints on the sands of time are about to be washed up by the next wave. We need to set out new paths, urgently, after all, the real power of wisdom not hidden in knowing it all; but in not knowing enough. Because whatever we may think of our mastery of our own crafts is in reality achieving ‘mastery’ as an acknowledgment of arriving at a point of not knowing enough therefore continuous hunger and craving to search for bigger answers. Otherwise, just a few experts would have been enough for the world. Observe how after two millennia passed, we still have not figured out achieving grassroots prosperity, diversity, tolerance and equalities.

Only if our new wisdom understood will we advance or else stay lost at the beaches. Our new world of today needs new words, new vocabulary, and new narratives to allow correctly knitting the tapestries of our miseries and equally weaving strong and fit enough sails for the coming stormy winds of tomorrow. Muffled in the old-fashioned terms of the past, the double-sided, agenda-centric language used today, already lost its authenticity. Today’s language mummified in bandages of political correctness, already tombed intellectualism and spoken words into deprivations, while whatever enunciated as rehearsed acts via teleprompters is still  undecipherable by the global populace. Realities now demand change to honest words to assemble new narratives, to calm restless citizenry to deliver its truthful meaning in bold progressions.

Loudly enunciated are our acceptances of our victory and defeats or we stay silent to our deceptions. There is a brighter future ahead, indeed, but firstly, if we only accept for a moment that our previous attempts on grassroots prosperity creation were failures of sorts, suddenly pandemic recovery appears meaningful. If we also accept our previous trajectory of economic development spanning the last decade was somewhat hit or miss on targets, suddenly, new horizons appear.  If we accept also that all our power-skills and rich-knowledge almost maxed out, suddenly brighter futures start to appear. Because, only when we discover a window, find some empty spaces tumble into voids, and chasms new things start to pour in, new ideas flourish, the processes start as enlightenment for new discoveries to commence. No matter where we stand on this earth, a new world has once again brought us on crossroads to face new transformation for brand new adventures

Our limitations on our performance are true measurements to qualify us to enter the cockpits.  Historians will recognize this pandemic recovery as a very special moment; declare this era as a small blip in the course of human endeavor and a glitch that ‘possibly’ corrected the role of government administration to allow far more talented and upskilled citizenry at helm to advance.  One: The corporate leaderships of technology companies acquired extraordinary smarts many times more powerful over what their own top national political leadership team displays and thus unable to tackle any technology sides of the economy.  Two: Digitized and technologically advanced vertical sectors across 200 nations and 10,000 cities shut out national political leaderships and local institutional administrators as obsolete and unprepared to deal with the required speed of response and execution and therefore losing future control of the national economic drivers of national economy in global jurisdictions. Frequent flyers know a lot about flying city to city but definitely are not certified and qualified pilots to fly jumbos around the world. The power play of the digital economy once enters the ocean of platform economies of the world will become extremely specialized, therefore, unless prepared, nation-by-nation, top political leadership and government agencies will lose grip on all such technology advancement games and become simply spectators. Study crypto-currency deployments, Space travel and satellite transportation, AI and trading games, Jack Ma and China over ruling financial sectors as a start.   

Our mobilization of hidden resources and talents are proof of what we just learned coming out of fog. For the first time in 100 years, globally speaking, a new world emerges; The pandemic has already prepared the humankind to rediscover “the meaning of life” the purpose of “co-existence” while to the poor of the world “re-learn to survive” and to the rich “re learn to create common good”.  Is pandemic germinating our entrepreneurial intellectualism? Is this the kind of transformation humankind has been waiting for over a century? Why is futurism calling for futuristic literacy?

Our billion hungry every night despite two millennia past, we must show our resolve or our negligence will destroy us. The poor of the world; in neglect, misery and almost buried alive, Millionaires anxiously digging their own graves,  now exhausted, Billionaires digging deeper to find their own legacy if any and Trillionaires buying up heavens in the clouds to block other voices.  The Towers of Babylon going half empty, displaying signs of ‘vacancy’ fires of hell at the base only provide gentle warmth to the upper celestial floors of luxury living. Where sweetness is missing in the bitter medicine of our times ignored but candies alone will never cure; the message in the bottle found on the bloody beaches tossed but the noise of fakery drowns us all. Imagine, if we compressed the last two millennia in two minutes. We just evaporated at the last second. Universe did not even notice.

Wondering, what was the possible message in that bottle, if any? 

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Kickstarting the U.S. Economy: A Rebound or Further Inequity?

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The global economy has seen its fair share of peculiarity in recent years; much attributed to the developing economies rather than the stable sovereigns of the world. However, the wave of the pandemic has toppled the conventional trend unlike ever before. Whilst the developing economies gain traction, the European economies are crumbling under the whelming pressure of the pandemic.

The US economy, however, is on its track to rebound at nothing but an accelerated pace that is optimistic as it is sinister. Forecasters have been predicting an economic boom post the pandemic for months yet the claims were rebuffed as overly quixotic. The economic boom is on cards that could contract the surging unemployment rates and could even push the economy towards a prolonged growth trajectory.

The economic recovery is evident from the jump in retail sales all over the US: levels anticipated to bloom further amidst speculations of a hefty aid package advocated by president Biden. Moreover, the FED has predicted a growth of 4.5% in the US output; the highest predicted level of GDP growth in over two decades. The optimism is matched by the leading economists, likes of Goldman Sachs putting a word in their perspective: ‘We [US] are very likely to get a very high growth rate’.

The budding confidence in the economy is majorly linked to the rollout of vaccines. Albeit slow-paced, the vaccination drives are striving hard to meet targets set by the authorities. Coupled with the shift in the government, the national focus is primarily etched in the campaigns to ensure timely inoculation before the virus strikes again.

However, the inoculation would grip over the country for most of the year 2021, keeping the natural order of the country at bay. The economy, thus, is bolstered by Federal aid packages; pouring trillions of dollars in rental packages and unemployment benefits. The resulting is a pile of surplus disposable income which awaits an opportunity to be expended. Given the mounding pressure of recession and health crisis cumulated over the yesteryear, the income would be sufficient enough to suffice under the newfound rental and mortgage reliefs purported by the federal government. Combined with free public transportation, the added monetary value could be utilized as soon as the country bounces back from lockdowns.

The surplus income could further expand if congress approves the magnanimous aid package proposed by the democrats under the plan of president Joe Biden. As vaccinations continue to immunize the population and income blooms within common households, approaching summers could prove to be a haven for the US economy to shine bright. Peak demand for hotels and transport is expected in the second and third quarter of 2021; unemployment is predicted to level down to 4.1% due to surging demand for labour in the HoReCa sector whilst simultaneously kickstarting the dormant business of airlines and smattering of other means of transit.

Even the most experienced economists, however, have pitched reservations to the envisioned rebound of the US economy. The prime facet impeding that prospect is the intermittent campaign of vaccination. The inoculation has been slower than expected and the adverse effects of the jabs have instilled a fear that threatens to further stall the efforts to vaccinate the population. With the ensue of new virus variants in California and irregular vaccination drives, the expected recovery could defer to late 2021 and even 2022. This could make the US vulnerable to the 3rd wave of Covid as per the pattern of cases observed last year.

The political standoff is another factor that could push economic prosperity into despair. The simmering tensions post the impeachment trial of Donald Trump have surfaced over the last two months. The demarcation in the senate is as clear as it has ever been over decades and even the split in the republicans has brewed post the acquittal of Trump. Both parties locking horns this early casts a confusion that stood out in the recent energy crisis in Texas; the federal and state governments bumping heads whilst the state drowned in stark darkness and bitter cold. This disparity paints a bleak picture for the United States given Mr. Trump could stir more instability with the prospect of running the election again in 2024.

The escalating oil prices also indicate a tough road for nearly the entirety of the manufacturing sector of the economy along with any lucrative opportunity to the airline industry in the forthcoming months. As the world still reels from the pandemic, the crush in the oil supply from the US has rendered the valuation at high levels; a contrast to the plummeting prices just last year. The Brent index has surged more than 28% since December 2020, pushing the prices up to as high as $66 per barrel. With the forecasts expecting Brent to further climb up the trajectory and the subsequent production crunch from Russia and OPEC members, oil prices could rise up and beyond $70 per barrel. This price surge, as a result, could convert the booming economy into hyperinflation since the US would continue to rely on imported petroleum until it regains the economic traction to be self-sufficient again. Thus, the pilling income could transition into sky-high prices post the pandemic.

Mirroring the recession of 2001, while the economy started to expand within a year, the unemployment rates remained high for the better part of the decade. Drawing parallels from that period, while the growth is projected to touch the 5.8% mark later in the fiscal year of 2021, a congruent projection could not be made on the front of economic recovery. Although high inflation has never been an issue for the US in the past, unlike the developing nations, sluggish recovery in employment, brimming tensions in the political arena, and irregular inoculation rates could widen the gap of wealth in the country. Inequity, thus, is inevitable as an opportunity cost of growth at the expense of an inflating economy. The affluent strata of the society would reap the benefits much more rapidly than the working class. Whether it would be of long-term virtue or despair: time is the deciding factor for the common citizens of America.

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