We must prepare for the changes in employment that will follow Covid-19

‘Just Transition’ principles must be embedded in the response to workplace vulnerability

As Ireland emerges from the Covid-19 lockdown, many people will potentially lose their jobs or see the nature of their jobs change radically. File photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

As Ireland emerges from the Covid-19 lockdown, many people will potentially lose their jobs or see the nature of their jobs change radically. File photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

 

In the months and years ahead, as Ireland emerges from the Covid-19 lockdown, many people will potentially lose their jobs or see the nature of their jobs change radically. The impact on particular economic sectors and types of job is at risk of becoming a nasty contagion in itself and the approach used to address this problem is critical to retaining the cohesive social fabric of our nation.

We must adopt a “Just Transition” approach – one that is equitable, fair, inclusive and sustainable in terms of its social, economic and ecological impact. It is the only way forward.

This approach needs to be firmly embedded within the fabric of government policy, including the upcoming programme for government. With a Just Transition approach, all citizens are afforded access to the many opportunities that lie ahead in our increasingly innovative world.

There is no “one size fits all” solution, nor any single unifying way forward, given the complexity of the challenges that we now face. Our work must instead be based on adopting a unifying set of principles and values, from which a collective vision for a Just Transition can emerge.

This is the first of three key elements, which can increase the sense of cohesion and the potential benefits for those workers most vulnerable. The second key element is the need to place particular and sustained focus at both regional and local level, as well as at national level, to ensure that all citizens can participate and derive the full benefits.

And the third key element is building strong engagement with a broad range of stakeholders, including the most vulnerable workers and businesses. This engagement includes deliberating and “road testing” ideas for policy recommendations with those most likely to be impacted. With these three elements in place, the resulting policy recommendations, while potentially complex, are both relatable and actionable.

Guiding principles

To address the first key element of Just Transition work, many international and European governments use a set of values or guiding principles developed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), namely social consensus, fairness, justice and equality. Based on these unifying values, a Just Transition approach for Ireland is one that can be seen and accepted as fair, equitable, inclusive and participative, and where outcomes comprise of specific place-based solutions, as needed. The Government’s efforts to identify solutions for redeploying Bord na Móna workers in the midlands are an example of this Just Transition approach to addressing employment vulnerability. Many more such interventions and investments must now follow.

The second element, particular and sustained focus at both local and regional level, requires early dialogue with vulnerable workers in at-risk settings, to help capture their understanding of what it means to have fair and equitable opportunities to advance.

As a nation, we have recently witnessed the power of our collective and pre-emptive efforts

To build fair, equitable and inclusive opportunities for all, we must hold true to this vision of a resilient Ireland, remain open to differing solutions for different places and circumstances, and be flexible in how we avail of the emerging opportunities.

The third key element, strong engagement with stakeholders, is a craft that many global organisations struggle to do well, because the focus is mistakenly on those most influential rather than those most impacted.

Although “road testing” recommendations with those most likely to be impacted may slow down the report generation, it speeds up acceptance amongst those most likely to resist policy changes later on.

The resulting diversity of inputs must then be integrated into policy ideas. This value-adding manner of engaging stakeholders and building consensus can be deployed by any business or institution, where the work is resolutely research driven, and inputs from both vulnerable as well as strongly influential stakeholders are integrated into early policy ideas.

Policy development

So, how does this translate into something that’s relatable and actionable for the increasing number of workers and businesses who now feel vulnerable? When uncertainty is high and workers don’t feel safe, early engagement is a proxy for safety. Early engagement in policy development is an essential step in creating buy-in and overcoming apprehension about major change.

Pre-emptive workforce development policies promote the advancement of training opportunities and supports for all workers, even before they might be laid off or become vulnerable. Such policies motivate individual workers to take greater responsibility for their progress and are in everyone’s interest – workers, employers, communities and the State.

The lockdown has propelled many individuals to focus their thoughts on training and upskilling. This innovative trend should be followed up with appropriate policy, critical interventions and supports from government.

All-inclusive policy development is, in itself, an essential part of the path forward and must continue with greater vigour as we look to emerging from the current crisis.

A critical and actionable way to halt the spread of workforce vulnerability, the other nasty contagion threatening us, is by ensuring that pre-emptive workforce development becomes “the new normal” in Ireland.

As a nation, we have recently witnessed the power of our collective and pre-emptive efforts. Exciting opportunities are ours to generate and capture, if we stand collectively prepared. Decisive, determined and bold leadership is needed to create the appropriate policies and a programme for government which drives and directs investment in this work.

Sinead O’Flanagan was formerly a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and is a former academic director of the RCSI Institute of Leadership. She is a member of the National Economic and Social Council

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