Workers Health & Safety Centre

Future of work requires more protection for vulnerable workers, study

Woman using computer
Massive social, technological and economic change is shaping the work we do and will impact workers unequally says new research exploring the topic.

This is occurring amid ongoing shifts from industrial to service and knowledge-based economies, the offshoring of work and the exponential growth in nonstandard work arrangements. So, although change presents some with opportunities, those already experiencing vulnerability at work may be less likely to benefit. Without complementary shifts in public policy and access to education and training vulnerable workers will be left behind.

Scan of recent research

Emerging research tells us the future of work is characterized by diverse and often intersecting change, including the use of artificial intelligence, automation of jobs and climate change to name just a few. These changes are likely to disrupt all industries and will impact working conditions and what work is available.

How these changes will affect vulnerable workers is of growing concern. New research seeking to fill this knowledge gap was the subject of a recent webinar hosted by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) as part of its regular speaker series.
The study, supported by the New Frontiers in Research Fund, involved a multidisciplinary team led by Dr. Arif Jetha, a scientist at the IWH. In presenting the findings, Jetha provided this important context, “The pace and magnitude of change is happening at a far greater rate than before. For example, technologies are more advanced, more integrated and being applied faster.” Even more reason the research team also identified the need to determine social policy and labour protections for vulnerable groups

The team completed a horizon scan of a diverse range of existing academic research, grey literature and social media published from 2015 in the English language. Together, they help document a change in the nature of work and describe its negative impact on vulnerable workers. The comprehensive scan, conducted between December 2019 and January 2020, was updated in August 2020 to capture new literature on changes to work resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trends shaping the future of work

From their review, the team identified nine medium-to-long term trends that characterize the future of work. The downside of these trends, if left unchecked, may produce work arrangements and work environments that are increasingly fragmented, again, negatively affecting the most vulnerable workers. But these trends are not without some glimmers of hope. Dr. Jetha summarized them as follows:
  • Digital transformation of the economy (e.g., digital technology and mobile apps could result in job loss and creation of precarious gig work)
  • Automation enhanced by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (e.g., self-driving vehicles and intelligent robots may result in job loss and wage erosion)
  • Biases in AI-enabled human resource management systems (e.g., voice or facial recognition tools may introduce or reinforce workplace biases and lead to worker discrimination)
  • Future of work job skills gaps (e.g., required technical competencies, digital literacy may be barriers for those without training and upskilling)
  • Globalization 4.0 (e.g., increase in ‘telemigration’ where work is done remotely by workers who are geographically distant and may be paid a lower wage)
  • Climate change and green economy (e.g., vulnerable migrant, seasonal agricultural workers may be among those most severely impacted by climate change and may experience barriers to new green jobs)
  • Gen Z workers (born 1995 to 2005) and inclusive work environments (e.g., most Gen Z’s value inclusivity and will also demand job training and upskilling)
  • Populism and the future of work (e.g., divisive political discourse can contribute to greater discrimination at work)
  • External shocks and the future of work (e.g., during COVID-19 digital technology has enabled many to set up working from home arrangements).
A hopeful trend? The labour market now includes a growing proportion of Gen Z’s who are highly educated, tech savvy and more racially diverse. Researchers say this group as a whole values inclusiveness, diversity, greater work/life balance and social responsibility and are more likely to press employers for skills development and training to develop and maintain job competencies. Should the Gen Z’s succeed, they could contribute to more accessible work environments and improved work conditions that would benefit vulnerable workers most of all.

On trend—WHSC virtual classrooms

Like all of our training, WHSC’s virtual classroom training applies adult learning principles to ensure learning is engaging, relevant and achieved. WHSC virtual classrooms offer live, real-time learning, providing most of the benefits of traditional in-person training. In this space, training participants can interact and communicate with fellow participants and a highly qualified WHSC instructor, view and discuss learning resources and complete individual and group exercises. All is designed to ensure demonstrated learning so necessary to resolving real-world, workplace health and safety concerns.
To ensure training integrity and validate the learner, training participants simply require a high-speed internet connection and a computer with a properly functioning camera and audio.

Through scheduled virtual classrooms we provide essential training to help employers meet mandatory training and competency requirements for workers, joint health and safety committees, supervisors and all who play essential roles in the pursuit of healthier, safer workplaces.
Don’t see what you need? Beyond scheduled classes, and where participant numbers warrant, we can work with you to coordinate almost any of our training courses in a virtual classroom for all workers, workplace representatives and supervisors.
To learn more:
Contact a WHSC training services representative near you.
Call: 1-888-869-7950
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Additional related resources:
World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs report
COVID-19 rates higher among racialized and low wage workers
COVID-19 Resources