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Commentary. Italian parliamentarian Laura Boldrini writes that work and non-work have reappeared on the table for discussion. It’s time for all progressive forces to put these issues at the center of their actions.

Let’s put work back at the center of our agenda

Robots and Paola Clemente, artificial intelligence and deadly fatigue. A non-rhetorical celebration of May Day compels us to be able to look at the opposite forms the word “work” takes today.

On the one hand, there are studies that indicate that within 15 years, in advanced societies like ours, a third of the activities now carried out by human beings will be provided by machines, not only in industrial settings, but also in services and support. Nostalgia does not help to defend employment, even if certain working conditions are to be regretted. We need to invest more, much more, in education, in breaking the digital divide, because only with an adequate level of knowledge, people will be able to find work.

Italy is the second country in Europe in the production of robots, but we slip to the very last place in terms of research and development expenses.

Unfortunately, for too many years it was thought that we could lead the global economic competition focusing on the reduction of labor costs, giving more flexibility to companies to hire and fire. We can read the consequences of this strategy in a few hard figures: Youth unemployment in Italy is between 38 and 40 percent, against a European average of 22; 48 women out of 100 are working, while the figure for the E.U. is 12 points higher.

It is imperative, then, to change our policies: Leave the austerity behind, restart public investments — yes, by the state, without shame — that may pull in private investment. And the public sector must act on the transition that robotics imposes: It will not be a happy switch from one job to the next, but a complicated redevelopment to be supported by appropriate forms of welfare.

If this is the future that lies before us, then on the other hand our present is still mired in what appeared our distant past of slavery. Last year, I had the honor of celebrating May Day in Puglia, in Mesagne, along with fellow workers and Paola’s husband, the laborer crushed by fatigue while working for €27 a day. This is the lowest level of exploitation. It’s just a step below the conditions afflicting the delivery bikers who are riding alongside us in the streets — not in the country but in our “advanced” cities.

Whether it is state-of-the-art or archaic work, whether it’s automation, a grape to be harvested or the home delivery of hot meals, the key point is always the same: workers’ rights, for too long considered a “luxury” that could be minimized in the name of competition.

This Legislature has sent mixed signals. There was the Jobs Act, with all its impact on dismissals for disciplinary reasons, which il manifesto reported on Friday. But also this Legislature issued the new law against illegal hiring, an achievement of civilization developed in dialogue with union representatives. And the Charter of Universal Rights of Workers, under which the CGIL has collected more than one million signatures. It has become a popular legislative initiative that started its process in the Parliament’s commission.

Work and non-work reappeared at the discussion table. It is now the time for all progressive forces to put these issues increasingly at the center of their actions, and make it perhaps one of the key themes upon which to decide future alliances.

Laura Boldrini is president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.