Elizabeth Morgan | COVID-19, technology and the future of work | Commentary


Elizabeth Morgan | COVID-19, technology and the future of work | Commentary

COVID-19 has brought me back to a subject, the future of work, which I wrote on in May and August 2019. With lockdowns across the world and social distancing, technology is playing a central role. We are participating in religious services and concerts online through live streaming.

Pope Francis may have been speaking over the Easter holidays in a mostly empty St Peter’s Basilica or St Peter’s Square, but he was joined by thousands, if not millions, of persons through the Internet and more traditional means such as television and radio. In many ways, COVID-19 is accelerating the use of technology in our work and social activities.

In Geneva, Brussels, London, New York, Kingston, Georgetown and other cities across the world, many persons are now working from home using the Internet and conducting local and international meetings through some form of teleconferencing. Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and senior officials have increasingly resorted to more frequent use of teleconferencing. In fact, today, Wednesday, the heads will be having another emergency session on COVID-19’s impact on the region.

We see services, such as medical consultations, physiotherapy sessions, and exercise classes, being provided through various Internet applications. It seems that e-commerce has also increased significantly. Thus, COVID-19 is forcing many of us, including myself, to become much more familiar with technology and its various applications.

Working from home has also raised again in Jamaica, and no doubt in other parts of the Caribbean, the question of flexible working hours. Persons working from home, whether in the public or private sector, are reported to be more productive and less stressed. Of course, this requires further study. In Jamaica, in 2014, the Employment (Flexible Work Arrangement) (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act was adopted but is yet to be fully implemented. COVID-19 is demonstrating that there could be merit in introducing some flexible working schedules where appropriate.

CHALLENGES IN THE CARIBBEAN

While many developed countries have been using technology in the workplace and have adopted flexible working hours, this is not the case in the Caribbean and other developing countries. As usual, we are playing catch-up.

We have, however, improved over the last 12 years or so when Caribbean countries upgraded Internet services and received teleconferencing equipment through a technical cooperation programme. The CARICOM Council for Trade and Economic Development Special Session on Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) has, for many years, been looking at creating a Single ICT Space allowing for ICT harmonisation and other legislative frameworks in CARICOM. Increased use of ICT, it is said, would aid the realisation of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Within the Caribbean, and especially in the public sector, it is necessary to ensure that institutions and employees have up-to-date, well-maintained equipment and are trained to use them. The service providers in the Caribbean also have to iron out all the kinks to provide a high-quality service at a price which users can afford. Let’s be honest, we are not actually receiving the best-quality telephone and Internet services from our principal providers. Security is an important issue as well and, of course, across the region cybersecurity policies and legislation have to be completed.

E-commerce, which is among the issues proposed for consideration in the World Trade Organization, needs to be properly addressed across CARICOM. This is where business is being conducted, especially among Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).

The use of technology is also changing how diplomacy is being conducted, moving from face-to face meetings and very formal diplomatic notes and saving-telegrams to teleconferencing, emails, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. There will, however, always be a place for the person-to-person contact, but diplomacy is clearly in the digital age.

The flexible working arrangements also need to be seriously examined for implementation. From what I am hearing, in this COVID period, it is being shown to be workable.

So, whether we are prepared or not, the future of work is here as COVID-19 is propelling us into the digital age and into the reform of working procedures.

As CARICOM heads meet today to share ideas and experiences on COVID-19, Prime Minister Mia Mottley has said that this could be the region’s time. Indeed, it could be its time to implement the many proposals which are outstanding, including on agriculture and food security, trade in services and ICT.

Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.


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