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'It really is fundamentally changing:' International labor and the future of work

Kevin Cassidy is the director of International Labor Organization office for the United States and Canada.
Collin Schopp
Kevin Cassidy is director of International Labor Organization office for the United States and Canada.

The International Labor Organization, or ILO, is a United Nations agency that works toward “decent work” for everyone. The process includes representatives bringing world leaders, CEOs and employees to the table to discuss labor reform.

“So it's not unusual to see Walt Disney, Coca Cola, Walmart sitting at the table discussing issues like domestic violence and harassment in the workplace, global supply chains, inequalities,” said Kevin Cassidy, director of the ILO for the United States and Canada. “So it's a rather unique institution.”

Cassidy and the ILO work to set international labor standards. The goal of “decent work” for everyone includes being able to freely choose your job, having opportunities for advancement, being able to move from job to job and earning a good living with your skills and knowledge.

“The reason that it's so special is that work is the nexus between the economic and the social. It's where we spend most of our time, how we identify ourselves, why we go to school, you know, to have a gainful employment and a life ahead of us,” said Cassidy. “So, you can deal with a lot of issues that you can't in the development phase of the UN itself.”

Often this means working to help low-skilled and migrant workers out of forced labor situations, but as Cassidy pointed out, labor is universal and it can be difficult to set standards that work globally.

Another common issue for Cassidy and the ILO is inequality in the workplace. He said they regularly deal with discrimination based on gender, race or sexuality.

“We're all trying to struggle to do the best in life. You know, and when push comes to shove ... people want to thrive, they want to survive, they want to do things for themselves, said Cassidy. “So, thinking about people, respecting people, ensuring that they are able to enjoy their full human rights.”

The COVID-19 pandemic also presented a major challenge for Cassidy and the ILO.

“Along comes a pathogen that came into the workplace and basically shut down the global economy. About 87% of the workers in the global economy, in the first four months, were inactive,” said Cassidy. “So it was a massive blow to the economic structure that we had. So what we were looking at is: how do we get people back to work?”

It also included presenting solutions for the period before people could safely return to work. Cassidy said many of these programs are what are called “social safety nets” in the United States. He used the example of a German program where companies would contribute hours into a “job bank.” Workers could dip into these hours to earn enough money to remain stable and employed.

“Then of course, when the pandemic phase begins to die down, then they can get right back to work,” said Cassidy. “And you don't have to rehire.”

Remote work also played a role in redefining labor during COVID.

"Why live on say, the Lower East Side of Manhattan and pay $7,000 for a one-bedroom apartment. And all you do is work entirely to pay for that apartment, when you can move to Tennessee or South Carolina or down to Florida and you can remotely work for a lot cheaper cost of living?" said Cassidy.

This also presented a challenge to managers, he said, asking how do they measure employees in a remote work environment?

"Do we measure productivity? Do we measure time in the office? Do I get advancements if I'm not in the office? Is it a face to face business?" he said. "So I think we're at an inflection point here. And I think it's going to impact not only just the young workers coming into the market, but the existing businesses themselves."

Cassidy said another workforce trend the ILO saw during the pandemic was consequences for the most vulnerable. Migrant workers in hospitality sectors lost positions or hours, women couldn’t find childcare and had to leave their workplace and many young people looking for a first career couldn’t find an open rung at the bottom of the ladder.

“That sets them back 10 years,” said Cassidy. “So, we are now digging ourselves out of that.”

Even as the pandemic’s worst impacts begin to subside, Cassidy said rising inflation, climate change and global conflict continue to present threats to the international workforce.

“But it gives us an opportunity to build forward and look at the world in a more different way,” he said. “Looking at gender equality issues, looking at sustainability and supply chains, business continuity issues, looking at climate change.”

It also means that employees are asking themselves more questions about their relationship with work.

“It's not just about the workers who will have to re-evaluate what does work mean to them? What does life mean to them? What am I able to live upon? Where do I want to live?” said Cassidy. “Also businesses, in order to attract talent, are going to have to be able to appeal towards that talent pipeline. To bring people into their companies, they have to start treating people well.”

Increased efforts toward unionization, particularly among young people working for major corporations like Starbucks or Amazon, also is a sign to Cassidy that people are spending more time considering how their job benefits them.

“When I talk to young people, they say, ‘I just want security in the workplace. I want to know that I can take out a loan for a car. I want to make sure that I have an opportunity in this company to move forward,’” he said. “So it really is fundamentally changing the way in which we're looking at the world of work.”

Whatever innovation is coming in the future, whether it’s in technology or in employees’ relationship to work, Cassidy said the world will need to collaborate to find a solution.

"Because no one country, no one state, no one city is going to be able to do it on their own,” he said. “Because if everything around you is falling apart, eventually your society will fall apart as well.”

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.