Partly as a result of technological change, we are witnessing a sizeable reduction in the demand for low-skilled labour, and an increase in demand for high-skilled labour. Consequently, low-skilled employees are becoming increasingly dispensable, with larger numbers facing a choice between joblessness and insecure employment in the ‘gig economy’, whereby workers take on shifts on demand and with no guarantee of future employment. Several risks are associated with these trends. First, this is likely to exacerbate already substantial inequalities in income and free time between high- and low-skilled workers. Second, it is likely to result in the undersupply of particular kinds of valuable employment opportunities, such as those with predictable work hours and decent pay. Rather than enjoy good quality jobs, low-skilled workers may instead have to tolerate poor working conditions and significant instability (e.g. zero-hour contracts). Third, these trends will affect the ease with which workers can spend time with, and care for, their families. In other words, these changes will generate various kinds of externalities that may affect children and the elderly.
These trends are receiving sustained analysis by researchers in economics, computer science and business who tend to evaluate the labour market primarily in terms of its ability to enhance efficiency and maximise a company’s bottom line. There is no doubt that economic efficiency is one of the criteria by which we should assess labour market policies, but it is not the only one. When assessing labour markets, we must also be attentive to the distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation, as well as to what rights individuals possess. This gives rise to the following two research questions: (Q1) What does it mean for labour markets to be socially just and, in particular, what is the nature of the relationship between social justice and economic efficiency in labour markets? (Q2) In light of our answer to the first question, as well as various empirical facts about technological change, which labour market policies serve the pursuit of social justice?
These are the two research questions on which this project is focused. Its aim is to show how an empirically-informed political philosophy can answer those questions in ways that guide labour market policymakers in responding to some of the major challenges facing modern economies.
Directly relating to targets 8.2 and 8.5, this project explores our reasons to promote full employment and, in particular, it explores the demands of this commitment within contemporary labour markets, characterised by high levels of automation. As an aspect of this, the research explores the nature and force of our reasons to increase participation in the labour market rather than to take measures to ensure that even citizens who are unemployed are able to live fulfilling lives. To understand these complex matters, we need to clarify the relationship between our reasons to value economic efficiency and our reasons to improve individuals’ employment opportunities. Finally, relating to targets 8.3 and 8.8, we need a more complete and informative account of what makes work decent, as well as of how labour market regulations can promote the supply of decent forms of employment. This final task has an additional bearing on SDG 16.
The project runs from September 2020 to September 2022. Its beneficiaries include researchers in a range of academic disciplines and subdisciplines, including political philosophy, labour economics, employment law, and political economy. Furthermore, the project may be of interest to central bankers, government policymakers, trade unionists and members of think tanks. Its outputs include a project website, several high quality academic publications, including a monograph with Oxford University Press, as well as numerous lectures and presentations around the world, both at universities and other stakeholder institutions. The project involves some collaboration with the Social Market Foundation, which published a guest blog post on taxing automation.