Collective voices on data

Andrew Pakes · 15 September 2020

Even in this most unusual of years, who would have thought we’d have seen student protests about algorithms?

While the government was forced to think again, the exam results fiasco pointed to wider public concerns about how data is used, the role of humans in automated decision-making and our civil and democratic rights.

These are issues not only for government but for business too. Technology is already transforming recruitment, how we are managed, monitored, paid and promoted. This trend of data-driven decision-making by employers has been growing at pace in recent years.

The shift to remote working and blurring of lines between home and work has opened our eyes to how this technology could be used even more and in an even more invasive way.

This is the reason why, as part of the recent TUC Congress, Prospect organised a virtual event on Taming the Algorithm – looking at how and why workers need a voice over data and technology. In the run up we used Thought Exchange to ask registered attendees what they thought unions should be doing to empower workers in this fast-changing context.

Nearly 70 activists and union reps took part (thank you). Here are some of the priorities that came out of the discussion:

  • A right to disconnect for digital freelancers – Being 24/7 connected in unhealthy for anyone, especially workers who have multiple clients.
  • Strong boundaries between work and non-work – e.g. ensuring employers can’t monitor times when people are not working. Avoid technology being used to bring about a 24×7 working culture.
  • Devise and implement a training programme for trade union officers and reps – It’s essential for trade unions to have a strong practical and personal knowledge-base in the use, advantages and dangers of data management and algorithms.
  • Provide support to help union reps negotiate for our data rights – we need to make this part of collective bargaining.
  • Don’t try to negotiate rights that already exist in GDPR – many participants talked about rights to access and know what is collected – these rights already exist- so we should focus on gaps.

Source: Key themes from the Prospect Thought Exchange on union priorities for data and new technology.

The responses to the Thought Exchange reinforce work that Prospect is already doing to address these issues. Education is part of the answer, as is supporting representatives to negotiate with employers as jobs change.

Our research  shows that most workers are unsure what data is currently collected about them by their employers. So, we need to organise and ensure that unions raise these issues with businesses, regulators and government.

An agenda for workers

We are working with members, tech experts and other unions to ensure that we are equipped to engage on data and new technology. Here are four areas that we are working on:

  • Making better use of existing legal tools to test and scrutinise how our data is being used. We need to use existing GDPR rules to ensure unions are consulted when workers’ data is used. We are developing tools to help reps use GDPR – and Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs) to bring transparency over how our data is being used.
  • Negotiating for data rights. We are working with the Institute for the Future of Work on a pilot project to make data part of collective bargaining. This will include training and support for reps in working with employers to establish data rules.
  • Collaborating with other unions, activists and campaigners to ensure we have data tools workers can use to build our voices over change. The WeClock app is just one example, developed with the help of Dr Christina Colclough. We are also sharing, through Uni Global Union, ideas with worker colleagues across the world.
  • Advocating for a good and rewarding future of work. We are campaigning for improved workplace rights around transparency over the collection and use of employee data, and to establish new rules, such as on the Right to Disconnect and challenging the always-on work culture. We are calling for the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) to be much clearer about the role of workers involved in GDPR and DPIA when employers are using worker data in new ways.

Source: Prospect highlighted areas for union consultation in ICO guidance on Data Protection Impact Assessments

Data is the frontline of our civil and economic rights

There is a lot at stake if we don’t ensure worker voices are involved in shaping the future of work. Unaccountable decisions, hard-wiring human discrimination into data processes and a trend towards unchecked surveillance and monitoring are just some of the risks. But this becomes even more important when people’s livelihoods are at stake, as they are in the work relationship.

In the post-Covid debate around the future of the office, we need to ensure that workers’ rights don’t become obscured or disappear. Unions have long advocated flexible working but we need to ensure that any changes are negotiated, and work for workers. The risks of hidden overtime, the always-on culture, creepy monitoring technology and poor home working conditions are real.

In essence it is time to get organised about data.

The trade union and civil rights organiser, Bayard Rustin, once said: “Let us be enraged about injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it.” Much of the discussion about data is about protecting individual privacy. But as Rustin reminds us, equality is also about economic rights – good work, decent housing, and the ability to get on in life.

The great civil rights march on Washington that Rustin organised was about freedom AND jobs. There is no end to discrimination unless we recognise structural inequality. If we overlook what data is doing to jobs, how we are managed and what it means for work, we will fail to either realise the benefits of new technology, or to avoid a backlash.

Andrew Pakes is Communications and Research Director at Prospect