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23 September 2021

Automation and the trade unions

AI has tremendous potential in the workplace, but we need to make sure we put people first

By Frances O'Grady

New technologies have the potential to make us all richer and to change the world of work for good. When the TUC polled workers in the run-up to our 150th anniversary in 2018, people overwhelmingly agreed (74 per cent) that improvements in technology could give them more control over their working lives, as opposed to the “always-on” culture fostered by many employers. 

But there was also a weary cynicism that most of the benefits from new tech would be grabbed by business owners and that none would reach the shop floor. And there was widespread concern that automation would make work more oppressive, speeding up pace and intensity, and leave staff monitored ever more closely by bosses.

Our job as a union movement is to ensure working people win fair shares from the productivity boost that advances in tech will bring – not least, through higher pay and more time with our families – and to ensure that the growth of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) does not lead to more punitive and discriminatory ways of working, but rather higher-skilled and more satisfying work.

The fourth industrial revolution

Many workers are aware of the risks automation might pose to their jobs. But far less is known about the use of AI to manage people at work. And yet the use of AI in this way has accelerated during the pandemic.

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Increasingly, AI is making life-changing decisions about who gets a job, who gets paid what salary and who gets selected for redundancy. Much more attention needs to be paid to the implications of being managed by a robot, not just the possibility of being replaced by one. Many are unaware when AI is being used to manage and monitor them, with fewer than one in three workers (31 per cent) consulted when any new forms of technology are introduced at their workplaces.

Staff directly managed by algorithm can find the experience dehumanising. When the TUC surveyed workers line-managed by AI systems last year, many described a sense of loneliness and constant pressure. Others complained of working life becoming “alienating and monotonous”. So how do we stop this from becoming the norm for millions in the future? Left unchecked AI could lead to greater work intensification, isolation and questions around fairness.

We’ve already heard reports of staff being fired – without a right to a human appeal – because of malfunctions in AI systems. That is why the TUC is calling for new legal protections to be put in place to protect workers from unfair treatment and discrimination at the hands of AI.

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UK law has failed to keep pace with developments in AI technology and urgently needs beefing up. In March of this year the TUC teamed up with leading employment lawyers Robin Allen QC and Dee Masters to publish a series of proposals. These included calling for a legal duty on employers to consult trade unions on the use of “high-risk” and intrusive forms of AI in the workplace; a legal right for all workers to have a human review of decisions made by AI systems so they can challenge those that are unfair and discriminatory; amendments to the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR) and Equality Act to guard against discriminatory algorithms; and a legal right to “switch off” from work so workers can create “communication-free” time in their lives.

We believe these reforms are desperately needed and should be supported by government and the business community. Trade unions do not want to stand in the way of innovation, but we do want to make sure that innovation benefits everyone at work and that people are protected from exploitation. 

Managing change

In the past 30 years, industrial and technological change has been managed in ways that have harmed workers. The transition from a manufacturing to a service economy has been accompanied by weakened rights for workers, and since the financial crisis we have experienced a decade of feeble pay growth and increased insecurity at work.

We cannot afford to see this trend repeated as we emerge from the pandemic. The UK economy faces significant risks in the future – including from new technology. 

As well as posing a threat to people’s rights and basic dignity at work, automation and AI could also cause unpredictable and widespread disruption in the labour market, resulting in big spikes in unemployment and business failure. I’ll never forget hosting former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane at a TUC seminar in 2015. I watched journalists’ jaws drop to the floor as he predicted that as many as 15 million UK jobs could be taken by robots as automation spreads through the workforce.

These forecasts are always uncertain, but Andy’s intervention was a timely reminder of the potential industrial and labour market upheaval that could lie ahead if we don’t get this transition right. Those of us who lived through the de-industrialisation and mass unemployment of the 1980s don’t want to see that kind of damage unleashed again.

That is why the TUC is pushing for ministers to set up a “future of work” taskforce – of business, government and unions – to prepare for the challenges ahead. And why we are calling for a permanent short-time working scheme as a post-pandemic legacy to help protect working people through periods of future economic change. Such a scheme would produce significant savings on redundancy, training and hiring costs, and enable firms to keep skilled staff on their books. And, crucially, it would act as a bridge for workers in industries and jobs most under threat from automation.

This approach would bring us in line with many other leading economies. Twenty-three OECD countries had short-time working schemes in place before the coronavirus pandemic, including Germany and Japan, as well as many US states.

There is no reason why the UK can’t be a world leader in protecting working people too. If this pandemic has taught us anything it is that economic shocks can happen with little warning and that ways of working can change overnight. It is essential that workers’ interests are put at the heart of our post-pandemic economy, and that technological change is harnessed to improve, not degrade, working lives.

Frances O’Grady is general secretary of the TUC.

This piece was originally published as part of our policy report on The Future of Work. To read the full report click here.