G7 labour ministers look to set plan for tech disruption in workforce
The Canadian ministers hosting a group of G7 counterparts in Montreal have begun crafting cross-border policies that would help and reassure workers caught in the churn of a dramatically evolving labour market.
The most recent estimates provided at the two-day meeting that started Tuesday suggest that up to 15 per cent of jobs in the G7 could disappear because of automation over the next two decades.
Automation is expected to generate demand for both high-skilled and low-skilled occupations, resulting in “a hollowing of the middle” marked by declines in jobs requiring a mid-range level of skill, according to details the OECD provided to officials in attendance.
Despite high government talk of automation, artificial intelligence and innovation, not everyone has — or will — feel the benefit of the technological changes, said Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains. He said governments want to find ways to clearly demonstrate how “innovation” spending can help the majority of citizens, such as how digital infrastructure advances could help rural and remote communities.
A senior European Union official echoed Bains’ words, suggesting the G7 needed to encourage use of artificial intelligence to improve daily lives while affirming the importance of privacy and accountability to maintain trust with workers. Britain’s envoy to Canada highlighted her country’s contribution to the talks in a report focusing on the need to use “genuine innovation” to solve “real-world issues.”
“This G7 isn’t about economic growth, it’s also about equality,” Bains said in an interview ahead of the Montreal meeting.
“That’s really what innovation is about. We sometimes get really focused on technology and gadgets. I think it’s really important to realize the benefits of innovation.”
The Liberals have looked to calm domestic nerves through spending on skills training programs to ensure the programs are “available at any stage or age” so displaced workers can land new jobs, said Labour Minister Patty Hajdu, who is co-hosting the meeting with Bains. But the programs are “not going to be for everyone,” she said, such as older workers nearing retirement age, a growing cohort in this country.
Canada has one of the youngest populations in the G7, even as it rapidly ages as more people hit retirement age with fewer replacement workers available as a result of low birth rates. Statistics Canada predicts that the proportion of seniors could, by 2031, equal the level now seen in Japan, which has the oldest population in the G7 with one-quarter of people over age 65.
“One of the conversations that keeps coming up at these G7 and G20 meetings is the idea of how to help workers transition (to jobs or retirement) and that there is some fairness and equity in that transition. So we’re very focused on that,” Hajdu said in an interview ahead of the meeting.
The Liberals have put their future bets on programs to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields for students, and a program known as CanCode aimed at teaching coding and digital skills to one million students. Bains and Hajdu are touting the measures as they seek matching policies from other G7 nations so the widest number of people possible benefit from technological changes.
The two-day meeting on the future of work is one of several Canada will hold this year ahead of the G7 leaders summit in early June in Charlevoix, Que.
Hajdu and Bains opened the meeting by outlining the extent of coming technological change, like automation, that could displace workers, as well as the need to craft policies to prepare workers for new jobs.
One dominant theme of their remarks was that no one should hold back in talks about dealing with the rise of the “gig” economy — defined by more temporary or freelance jobs — and digital tools that let companies hire workers anywhere in the world.
Top federal officials have been wrestling for years with how to deal with such changes and meet the government’s stated goal of “inclusive growth.”
A document prepared for a top official at Employment and Social Development Canada last year argued for more flexibility in the social safety net to smooth out the “unemployment risk and unstable earnings” that come with the gig economy.
The briefing note from May 2017 also noted a downward shift in unionization rates that “contribute to rising inequality” because unionized workers earn, on average, $4 more per hour than their non-union counterparts. “Civic and political participation” and “level of reliance on basic labour standards” could also be affected by the shift, it adds.