A Catholic-Inspired, Person-Centered Approach to the Future of Work

Geneva, 17 January 2020 - The labor market is changing fast. Technology is transforming labor needs and migrants are among those most affected. Meanwhile, the causes of their displacement, such as conflicts and climate change, are growing. Donald Kerwin of the Center for Migration Studies of New York presents the think tank’s research, which focuses on finding person-centered, Catholic social teaching-aligned responses to these challenges.

The ICMC-coordinated The Future of Work, Labour After Laudato Sì project aims to provide Catholic and other faith-based organizations with tools to respond to current and projected labor market changes in ways that uphold the dignity of those involved.

“Jobs, Demography and Migration,” one of the project’s six research tracks, was coordinated by the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) of New York, a Scalabrinian think tank and a close partner of the International Catholic Migration Commission. The research findings were presented at a High-Level Regional Conference on the Future of Work co-organized by ICMC in Bangkok on 3-4 December 2019.

We met with Donald Kerwin, CMS’s executive director, for a forward-looking discussion on labor market and migration challenges, States’ responses and the role of the Church.

[ICMC] Tell us about the Center for Migration Studies’ role in the Future of Work research project.

[Donald Kerwin] We were a part of a team that also involved Scalabrini study centers in the Philippines and South Africa. The project looked into the future of labor and migration from an ethical perspective and produced research on particular populations.

For instance, in the Philippines, we studied programs that seek to allow possible migrants to remain and pursue agricultural careers at home. We also researched the severe problems of fishers from diverse countries on Taiwanese fishing vessels. And we looked into the difficult work conditions of indigent migrants and asylum-seekers in South Africa.

The results will be published as a series of reports on the future of work and of migration. I myself wrote an integrative paper that examines research and trends related to international migration on the one hand and the future of work on the other in light of the immense and growing changes in the global workforce. This paper developed principles from Catholic social thinking and international law to suggest how we might approach these challenges.

What are some of the research’s key findings?

One of the big trends is that automation, robotics and advances in technology are starting to change the nature of work. Work-related activities are changing because they're being automated at breakneck speed. We're not sure exactly what jobs in the future are going to look like. As a result, the future of work looks very uncertain.

We also know that there's a growing number of international migrants and we can expect these numbers to increase in the future. Climate change, conflict, poverty ─ all of the things that force people from their homes ─ are growing and the number of permanent solutions for those people is not increasing at the same pace. As a result, you have more and more people who are forcibly displaced for long periods of time.

How do current labor market trends affect migrants?

For migrants, who do a lot of service sector, agriculture and manufacturing work, it's quite clear that the impact of these trends will be very extreme. We have to start thinking about how to train them, re-skill them and prepare them for the global labor market.

One important factor is climate change. Its effects can take the form of rapid onset events and slow-onset changes, but it is displacing large numbers of people already, sometimes whole communities. We need to plan for far more of that in the future.

Thinking very seriously about how to address the root causes of forced migration is extraordinarily important. We're worried that people will be trapped in situations that they can't escape. At the moment, there really isn't sufficient planning, for example, for climate-induced displacement. 

What role do States play in addressing these issues?

It's clear that when you're dealing with something like migration, the only way to address it satisfactorily is through cooperation. That's very much at odds with the ethos in a number of countries right now, which is: “Our country first, we can do this unilaterally.”

With migrants, you can't act unilaterally because by definition, they're moving and they're crossing borders. There needs to be cooperation between States. For example, the results of climate change do not respect national borders. There have to be solutions that also cross borders. 

The kind of cooperation we're seeing now is cooperation to exclude people from protection, to stop them in their journeys, to marginalize them. People need to move if they're moving, that's what forcibly displaced migration is all about.

Cooperation should focus on how to facilitate that, how to protect people, how to integrate them into communities, how to develop permanent solutions to their situation. For people who are stuck in places for years and years, could States make labor visas or other types of visas available to them and their families? It's a new kind of permanent solution to their situations.

How can Catholic social teaching contribute to finding solutions?

People-centered work is the Catholic approach. People are your starting point, not your ending point, and you recognize that those people have gifts, contributions to make. The Holy Father has said that the solution to many of these situations starts at the peripheries. You start in communities that are most affected by these realities and you build solutions based on their experiences.

We’re not sure what the future will look like, but what we are sure of, from a Catholic perspective, is that that process ought to serve human beings, not subjugate them or replace them. It should promote human dignity.

Can you give us examples of how the Church is contributing to finding solutions through a person-centered approach?

The Catholic Church is involved in many good practices. One of them is featured by the Manila  Scalabrini Migration Center’s research for the Future of Work project. The study looks at various government and NGO programs that target the agricultural sector to see how to value that work so that young people will want to continue to work in agriculture in the Philippines.

This approach tries to honor the right to remain in one’s country, which is well-recognized in Catholic social teaching. It is the right to choose not to migrate and to have a chance to flourish at home. If people do leave, they should be able to do so voluntarily, not be forced.

Another example is a parish-based organizing program in the United States. It’s a beautiful, immigrant-led model. Immigrant communities in parishes come together and determine what their own needs and priorities are and what solutions they can pursue with assistance from mainstream Catholic institutions and other community partners.

These can be broad solutions like the need for immigration reform or they can address particular problems like alcoholism or domestic violence in parish communities. That program started in the Archdiocese of Chicago and is now spread to nine different dioceses. It's called “Pastoral Migratoria.” Hopefully, it will migrate to other dioceses and even nations.