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29 June 2021

The future of work must put people first

Technological change does not have to result in widening inequalities. 

By Yvette Cooper

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended our lives in ways we couldnt have imagined 18 months ago. Weve learnt to Zoom, we shop more online, weve worked out how to social distance in the workplace, and how to manage working from home.

Employers and employees have had to embrace a huge technological shift to cope. The changes this heralds for work and jobs, even as we come out of the pandemic, are likely to be far-reaching. Yet there is little evidence that policymakers have even started to think about what that means for our working lives in the future.

Technology has undoubtedly been a lifeline for many people during the pandemic. Millions of businesses and jobs moved online almost overnight, with remote and flexible working. I had never imagined I’d be speaking in the Commons Chamber or chairing the Home Affairs Committee from my front room, but even the most archaic institutions had to adapt in order to survive. Even for key workers unable to work from home, employers often adopted new technology to help manage social distancing or operate with fewer staff in place. 

Many of those new trends in flexible and remote working may well be here to stay. A recent McKinsey survey found that most employees want to stick with a hybrid model once the pandemic is over, with homeworking remaining a cornerstone of the working week. Depending on how employers respond, this shift brings new opportunities to improve the quality of jobs, reducing long daily commutes or supporting childcare. But it also brings new risks of isolation and insecurity.

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For some, economic recovery wont mean a return to work as it was before. The clock wont turn back on online shopping, for example, with more job losses expected on the high street. Millions of others are still furloughed and some of them will find their jobs dont reappear even when the virus is brought under control.

Last December, a report by the Changing Work Centre’s Commission on Workers and Technology, which I chaired, found that the pandemic had triggered a massive acceleration in the use of new technologies in the workplace. Changes that otherwise might have taken years happened within months. Some of those changes have helped businesses and jobs survive. But others have hastened the take-up of labour-replacing technologies that will leave more staff suddenly forced to seek new work.  

We warned of a dangerous double whammy for low-skilled and low-paid workers, who were more vulnerable to furlough and job losses during the Covid crisis and who are also at the greatest risk of losing their job to technology in the coming years and the least likely to have access to the training and skills they need to find new work. The commissions research found that 61 per cent of jobs furloughed in the first half of 2020 were in sectors at the highest risk of automation. 

So as the economy re-opens, we need government, businesses and trade unions to work together to ensure that all workers are supported in the post-pandemic world. Weve seen how those partnerships can work at the height of the crisis, adapting employment to keep people safe or drawing up the furlough scheme. But they must not end now. We need bold action to prevent inequality widening as a result of technology change and to ensure that all workers get a fair share in the rewards.

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That means a revolution in adult skills, not tinkering at the edges as the government plans to do, because people are going to need to retrain more often to keep up with new tech and secure the jobs of the future. It means overhauling job centres so they can help people to retrain for jobs as well as find them. It means a work and train guarantee” for young people that extends far beyond the government’s limited and lethargic Kickstart scheme, so that no one gets stuck in long-term unemployment. 

But this isnt just about skills and qualifications. Some of the vital growing areas of work – like social care – are less likely to be automated, but they are badly undervalued and underpaid. That needs to change.

It also matters how technology change is implemented. Employees should be given more say over technology change through proper consultation and collective bargaining with more support to ensure their pay packets benefit as technology drives productivity growth. It also means stronger privacy and employment laws to stop employers using new technology to exploit and monitor workers in the office or on the factory floor. 

Past eras of major technological change have created new opportunities, but also new injustices, and it has often taken decades for new legislation and institutions to tackle growing inequalities. In the industrial revolution, it took generations to build the welfare state, the trade unions or the Factory Acts. We need that same progressive ambition today. And we cannot afford to wait decades this time. We owe it to all those who have felt the full force of this crisis to act now.