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New technology can bring huge benefits — but workers must have a voice in shaping change in their workplace

Andrew Pakes · 24 July 2019

If we want an industrial strategy that works, we need one geared to the future, not pining for the past. The future we face is one in which the world of work will be transformed beyond recognition by digital technologies such as AI and big data, and advances they enable in areas like automation and distributed working. Already AI underpins and enables our everyday activities and interactions, from assessing information we need in an instant, to keeping up with our friends and family on social media. It is also changing the way companies do business, disrupting markets, and affecting the number and nature of jobs in the economy.

According to OECD estimates, over one in ten UK jobs face a more than 70% probability of complete automation, and another three in ten are likely to see “significant change” to tasks and content as a result of AI and robotics.[i]

If developed and deployed imaginatively and collaboratively, these new technologies could offer exciting opportunities to enhance work while massively increasing productivity. But instead they are arousing increasing anxiety, and now risk simply adding to workers’ sense of insecurity and disempowerment while exacerbating the worst features of the low-wage, low-productivity business models that are far too prevalent in the UK economy.

I agree with the saying often used by the Swedish trade unions, that workers should not fear the new machines, they should fear the old ones. We should be optimistic about the way technology can improve our lives, but we need to get it right. Central to this discussion, should be the role and voice of workers in how change happens. There is a lot of evidence that workers do see benefits in technological change. A recent report by DotEveryone [ii]found that four in five tech workers in the UK believed that technology benefited society as a whole. Yet more than a quarter of respondents also reported they had seen decisions taken that could have a negative impact on work or society. Prospect’s own findings back this up. Recent survey data from Prospect demonstrates that younger workers are more optimistic than older generations about the impact of new technology on their work.

Yet, anxiety about the future of work remains. YouGov polling conducted for Prospect in May 2019, revealed that 58% of working people have little or no confidence that they would be consulted or involved in any tech changes at work. This is why the failure of the Government’s industrial strategy to address this issue is such a fatal shortcoming. While Britain’s political debate is consumed by Brexit, the economy is changing around us. Prospering in this new era will require long-term vision and short-term agility, continuous investment in skills and technology, and diverse and engaged workforces.

Worker voice is key to a high productivity, high engagement economy

Worker voice is key to unlocking many of these problems. The evidence shows that economies in which workers are involved and represented have the highest levels of long-term R&D. The evidence also shows that employers which recognise trade unions are more likely to train their staff, and take equal opportunities seriously.

And the OECD has recognised that collective bargaining has a key role to play in enabling changes to jobs and ways of working, and thereby raising productivity. As OECD economists recently argued, “Collective bargaining and social dialogue can help addressing the challenges posed by a changing world of work… It can help shaping new rights, adapting existing ones, regulating the use of new technologies, providing active support to workers transitioning to new jobs and anticipating skills needs.” [iii]

Yet the Government’s industrial strategy has almost nothing to say on the active involvement and engagement of workers in the future of work and technological changes that will impact them. We already live in an age of division and lack of trust of major institutions. Ignoring workers in this debate is the sure-fire way to create a technological divide between winners and losers and to feed a culture of distrust.

Things could be different

Things could be different. Prospect works in many of the industries and sectors that the Government points to as central to its industrial strategy — from key export sectors such as manufacturing, agri-tech and the creative industries, to providers of essential economic infrastructure such as energy, transport and broadband, as well as pivotal Government agencies and research centres that, as we have learned from the work of economists like Mariana Mazucatto, have a vital contribution to make to the ecology of innovation.

Every day in these areas we see how collective bargaining and workforce participation can drive skills development, enable workplace change and the take-up of new technologies, and secure the engagement and input that businesses need from their employees if they are to succeed. For example our members in shipbuilding have been involved in projects to boost productivity by harnessing the ideas and creativity of the workforce. Meanwhile our BECTU sector recently concluded a groundbreaking agreement with investors in UK film production, one of the most exciting areas of growth in our economy today.

Principles for reform

These experiences point to three principles that are important to getting this right: trust; transparency; and transmission.

Firstly, is the broad concept of trust. Too often automation is talked about as something happening to working people, not with them. Workers are talked about as factors of production to be trained or to receive new skills, but not as agents of insight into how business or work operates or as individuals concerned about their careers and livelihoods.

There are risks that poor implementation of new technology will create resentment by existing workers and between communities. If we conceptualise technology as something that is only done to workers, and fail to address the fact that it is also done by workers, then our solutions will be incomplete and ineffective.

Secondly, we need a much more detailed discussion about transparaency and the application of technology. Concerns over data privacy, data ownership and how information is used to monitor workers or to decide on which jobs are affected need to be recognised by business and government The burgeoning consciousness of the tech workforce, whether seen in the recent Google walkouts or the whistleblowing in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, highlights what happens when this goes wrong.

This debate has two dimensions: the role of workers involved in designing and creating technology, AI and work processes, and the voice of workers likely to be impacted by the changing nature of work. An increasing number of employers are using AI to make decisions on recruitment, promotion, work allocation, pay and performance management.[iv] We have already seen widespread concerns over gender and other bias in choices made by algorithms as well as concerns over how technology is used to monitor staff, for example in measuring the speed of work or how long workers take for toilet breaks.

Yet, despite a widespread debate on AI ethics, there is rarely any interaction or consultation about the role of workers. For example, neither the government’s new AI Council nor its sponsored UK Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) has a worker representative in its governance. Whilst the CDEI talks about citizens, consumers, industry and regulators, it does not mention workers or trade unions[v].

Finally, transmission. Workers need a voice or agency over how change happens to them. This isn’t about turning back the clock, but creating a duty on organisations to engage with their workforce. With union density in the private sector standing at 15%, there is also a challenge here for unions to adapt to a fast-moving economy and changing expectations — especially those of the younger “digital natives” upon whom the future of our movement depends.

One of the most interesting comments at the Tech UK summit last year came from a tech lawyer who described AI ethics as something her clients now regard like health and safety. She meant as something that must be taken seriously, rather than being optional. It is useful way of looking at things. The evidence is clear that the best records for health and safety come in businesses that respect and encourage an independent voice for workers, and with that involve unions.

If we want new technology to succeed, we need, at the very least, worker representative or unions to be be involved in the governing bodies setting out guidance on how algorithms and data are used and applied. If companies are setting up ethics committees or innovation boards, there should be employee involvement. There is also a role for New Technology Agreements, used by many unions and employers, as part of collective bargaining arrangements, to ensure a shared understanding around how change happens and what it means at a company level. Prospect has also proposed a requirement on all businesses with more than 250 employees to commit to bargaining collectively with their employees.

We stand on the brink of a future where more and more power and wealth in our society will accrue to a small group of people who are rich in capital and who understand and control the technology on which our economy will depend. It is vital that we resist this future, and choose a different path where we reassert the right of all workers to have a say and a stake in their workplace and the wider economy.

Andrew Pakes is the director of communications and research at Prospect Union.

[i] https://www.oecd.org/employment/Automation-policy-brief-2018.pdf

[ii] https://doteveryone.org.uk/project/industry-attitudes-to-responsible-technology/

[iii] https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/9ee00155-en/1/2/5/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/9ee00155-en&_csp_=b4640e1ebac05eb1ce93dde646204a88&itemIGO=oecd&itemContentType=book

[iv] ‘Forget the CV, data decide careers’, 9 July 2014, https://www.ft.com/content/e3561cd0-dd11-11e3-8546-00144feabdc0

[v] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/787736/CDEI_2_Year_Strategy.pdf