Let's not forget that well before COVID-19, we often referred to the "revolution" underway in the workplace. Automation, digitalization, climate change and other seismic shifts were bringing upon major changes in the ways we work. Now, the economy — and life— as we know it seem more unpredictable than ever.
Yet after several months of living with the current pandemic, clear trends have emerged. Around the world, living rooms have become home offices, seminars have become webinars, and industries that have nothing to do with medicine are dependent on a vaccine.
How many of these changes, such as the proliferation of big data and AI in healthcare, were already in the works and simply accelerated by coronavirus? What's in store for the sectors, like travel and hospitality, that have come to a screeching halt in a way no one could have possibly predicted? What changes will stick, and what will eventually slip back into business as usual?
In a time of both unprecedented job losses and new appreciation for "essential workers," the world of work seems to be riddled with paradoxes whose answers may not be answered any time soon. French business writer Jean-Marc Vittori noted: "Of course, we'll have to start returning to the office, to exchange, to learn and to strengthen ties with clients and suppliers who have finally left home as well," he wrote. "But as further details are brought to light, the period of lockdown highlighted the complicated relationship people have with work, being somehow both over-invested and unsatisfied."
This edition of Work → In Progress sifts through the workplace's foggy future and shines a light on the potential paths where the world of work may take us.
COVID AND COWORKING Even before the pandemic, co-working was on the rise as remote employees and freelancers looked for a cheaper, more flexible alternative to the landlord-tenant system. Argentine daily Clarin argues that, given the pandemic's impact on the economy with rentals as a main expense, we'll see a second spurt of co-working as renters and landlords alike try to find creative ways to optimize their spaces.
THE ZOOM BOOM In November 2019, Andrew Wait, an economics professor at the University of Sydney, co-authored a study about how teams work together. In June 2020, he used his expertise to council fellow Australians on how to keep Zoom meetings fruitful. In an article in The Canberra Times, he explained that familiarity breeds innovation, meaning that informal water cooler chats often lead to great projects. Wait advises to keep meetings small and create time for social interactions between the team members that aren't necessarily work-related and where senior management are not present. And, whenever possible, ditch the screen for in-person meetings.
NATIONS IN AUTOMATION A new study published by McKinsey has found that COVID has fast-tracked the trend of workplace automation in Europe. McKinsey projects that, due to coronavirus, around 59 million jobs in Europe — 26% of the market— are at risk of unemployment, furloughing or diminishing to part-time. According to the report, this will lead to a shift in occupational skills that will, in turn, further expand the same 48 largest cities that currently account for most of Europe's job growth even further.
START UPS AND DOWNS It seems that in some parts of the world, COVID-19 has dampened the entrepreneurial spirit. A survey by Workstadiator found that in the Czech Republic, only 18% of workers are considering giving up job security for a more adventurous business career. France, which allocated 5 billion euros to its tech start up scene not so long ago, saw a 25.5% drop in the creation of new start-ups in the month of March.
MEANWHILE, IN ITALY The pre-COVID freelancing trend has seen an uptick since the pandemic. The Italian Union of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Crafts and Agriculture reports that the loss of jobs in sectors like hospitality is leading to a burst of newcomers to the ICT industry, and many of them are freelancers. The unemployment wave may just lead to a boom in digitally enterprising Italians who specialize in everything from marketing to programming.
A SARI SITUATION When musing on the topic of industries affected by coronavirus, we often mention in-person sectors such as events, travel and hospitality. Quarantine, however, has had a serious impact on businesses whose dependence on a physically social world is less obvious but just as important. India's weavers are a perfect example: Sari sales have plummeted as many vendors sell door-to-door and at open markets, and festivities for holiday seasons — the biggest selling period — may be cancelled. To make matters worse, sari fashion changes so fast that customers may be looking for a totally new trend in six months. This could present a double problem for manufacturers, who will have difficulty both supplying new fashions and getting rid of their old stock.
THE COMMUTE HOME In the United States, "working from home" is now becoming "working from car." CNN reports that even CEOs and senior management have set up shop in their vehicles, searching for a change of scenery and some privacy. It may seem like an unlikely office, but cars are designed to accommodate sitting down for long periods of time, and the mobility means that the view beyond your computer can change every day. Bluetooth makes cars a great place to take a call, and consoles can double as a desk.
LOANING STUDENTS While students are accustomed to working with their brains, the agriculture industry is making good use of their hands. As education remains on standby, the German Ministry of Agriculture created a platform connecting farmers with students who can provide seasonal work. The very same student-to-farm concept is being pushed in the Czech Republic, by a Communist Member of Parliament. As travel restrictions have left hundreds of thousands of job vacancies on European farms, hiring idle students is one way to keep the farming industry — and the economy — afloat.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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