The Right to Work in the Age of Automation

Mr. Dabney Waring
Prof. Zehra F. Kabasakal Arat

The significant decline of well-paying jobs in manufacturing in industrial societies over the last few decades has engendered economic anxiety, concurring with increased xenophobia and right-wing populism. Economists attribute the decline, in part, to automation, and numerous studies predict that more workers will continue to face the risk of losing their jobs to automation, in practically all economic sectors. Living in both “the age of human rights” and “the age of automation” requires a reconsideration of the meaning and realization of “the right to work.” This paper attempts to do so through a survey of major political theories that address work, the right to work, other rights related to work (e.g., the right to adequate living, the right to leisure), and the actual and potential impact of machinery on work and work-related human rights. It contends that automation presents an opportunity to conceptually de-link work from subsistence and fulfill various human rights typically related to the right to work. Emphasizing the interdependency of human rights and exploring redistributive proposals that directly or indirectly deal with work-related rights in some major philosophical traditions, the paper identifies four models: Guaranteed Full Employment, Universal Basic Income, State Socialism/Planned Economy, and a Marxist-Socialist Approach. It then assesses their promise and concludes that capitalizing on automation’s positive impact on productivity would allow the models not only meet their own goals but also realize the work-related rights to various degrees.