Technology, Equality and the Future of Work in South and South East Asia

31 January 2022

This paper seeks to take stock of the main dimensions shaping the future of work in the South and South East Asia and present key messages and policy recommendations to create an innovative and inclusive future of work.

In South and South East (SE) Asia, as in other regions of the world, technology is creating opportunities at the same time that it poses labour market challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating technological use and adoption that is consequentially deepening the restructuring of labour markets faster than the ability of governance and regulations to adjust. This is compounding employment challenges which, if left unattended, will exacerbate inequality and hinder economic growth in the region.

This report hones in on three challenges that rapid technological advancement poses for labour markets in South and South East Asia.

First, as technology enables the platform economy and associated opportunities for digital entrepreneurship and other forms of contract-based gig work, the growing incidence of these kinds of work could increase the numbers of self-employed workers that are responsible for obtaining their own social security. As this happens, the conventional mode of social security provision — where an employer provides these benefits to an employee, regulated by the government — breaks down. This fuels a rise in work that resembles informal employment.

Second, technology demands that education and skills training systems change to meet the needs of a technologically driven economy, but these systems are slow to adapt. The challenge is even greater against the backdrop of a demographic bulge that characterizes much of the region. Moreover, the uncertainty about how technology will continue to restructure labour markets makes it difficult to predict what skills the future of work will call for.

Third, unequal access to technology, relevant skills, and opportunities in the digital world disadvantages girls and women relative to boys and men threatening to aggravate gender inequality. A substantial literature confirms that gender gaps are indicative of a significant loss of productive potential.

These challenges, in the absence of effective policies and regulation, threaten to increase inequality. The present and future of work in South and South East Asia, as in other regions of the world, then depends on the ability of policymakers, businesses, civil society, and workers to acknowledge these competing trends and to take measures to address disruptions to harness the benefits of technological change while minimizing the costs in a post pandemic era.

This document builds on secondary research and the collective insights garnered from the “Dialogues on the future of work in the Global South” with experts on how technological trends are unfolding and their impact on the region’s labour markets today, and in the future.

As part of the series “Regional views on the Future of Work” it seeks to present key messages and policy recommendations emerging from these discussions. On the one hand, it is intended to take stock of the main dimensions shaping the future of work in the Global South. On the other, it is an open invitation to move from the plane of predictions to that of the imagination and future-building. It can serve as a powerful tool to reframe the discussion by adding Global South perspectives.

This work was a part of the Future of Work in the Global South initiative, coordinated by CIPPEC and supported by the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada. Sabina Dewan, Apoorva Dhingra, and Swati Rao of the JustJobs Network are the authors of the report.