Austerity budgets adopted by governments across the world since the 2008 financial crash are to blame for undermining the job security of millions of workers and threatening the progress made by women in the workplace, according to a UN report.
The threat to jobs from the growing use of robots and artificial intelligence has been exacerbated by a lack of government investment and lack of state support for skills training, the report also said.
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The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) said in its annual report, Beyond Austerity – Towards a Global New Deal, that the contraction of government spending meant that “the increasingly limited availability of good jobs” were going to men rather than women.
“Excluding women from good jobs deepens overall inequality with negative consequences for growth,” it said.
The report argued that giving women access to decent employment could only be achieved if governments maintained investment in affordable childcare facilities and care for the elderly. When they make steep cuts in early-years education and healthcare provision they are effectively asking women to pick up the slack, it said.
“There is much more to do to reach gender equality in employment than to increase the participation of women in markets and boardrooms,” said Unctad’s secretary general, Mukhisa Kituyi.
The report said: “Given the employment challenges associated with structural and technological change, and women’s primary responsibility for care work, Unctad recommends transforming unpaid and paid care activities into decent work”
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The rebuke of governments, including the UK’s, that have adopted austerity measures to reduce public debt while allowing households’ private debt to increase, is the main theme of the report.
Last year’s annual report highlighted fears of a debt crisis in developing countries as the threat of falling commodity prices and higher interest rates mounted. Low interest rates and the stimulus from quantitative easing have remained in place, easing the threat, but only in response to gloomy forecasts for GDP growth should either be withdrawn.
Kituyi, the former head of the Kenya Institute of Governance, said: “Despite all the talk of the urgency of reform at the time of the financial crisis, and recent claims that the financial system is safer, simpler and fairer, regulatory actions have so far done little more than clip the wings of high-flying finance, with lending now somewhat backed by capital and a bit less trading in the shadows.
“The public purse was used generously to prevent the financial sector going under in 2007-08, but the root causes of financial instability have not been addressed by national governments or on a global scale.”
Austerity was heightening fears that robots and artificial intelligence would displace workers in well-paid jobs rather than enhance their work and improve productivity, the report said. It argues for digitally focused industrial policies to ensure that robotics support jobs rather than threaten them.
Richard Kozul-Wright, the director of Unctad’s globalisation and development strategies division, said concerns about robots were mounting against a backdrop of uncertainty over the strength of the global economy.
“This has held back the investment needed to create new sectors, where workers displaced by robots could find better jobs,” he said.
Routine tasks in well-paying manufacturing and service jobs are being replaced by robots, the report said, but low-wage manufacturing jobs in areas such as clothing factories are left largely unaffected by automation.
“Although most jobs in developing countries are not under immediate threat, a tendency to further concentrate manufacturing activity in existing locations could follow, raising concerns that the gap between winners and losers from robot use will widen sharply,” it said.