Whose data is it anyway? Union bargaining on AI & tech

Andrew Pakes · 8 December 2021

Who has the biggest influence over your working life and future career? Your line manager? Your chief executive? Shareholders and investors? Or an anonymous computer program?

The idea that “Artificial Intelligence” could be your new boss might seem like the stuff of science fiction. But the infiltration of such technologies into business models and workforce management is happening much faster than most people realise.

Many of us have quickly become used to talking to “Alexa” or “Siri”, taking travel times and directions from Google, and being targeted by personalised online advertising – all enabled by using large quantities of recorded data to automate judgments and decisions. Similar technologies are being used by increasing numbers of employers to evaluate job and promotion applicants, allocate and schedule work tasks, and measure individual performance.

As in our personal lives and leisure time, such technology can be genuinely useful, more efficient and accurate than anything a human could do, even liberating. But it also carries serious risks – of displacing valuable human interactions, compromising our privacy, and breaking down or making mistakes. In a work context the consequences can be even more serious, producing outcomes that are discriminatory or dangerous to our health and wellbeing.

No longer limited to “gig” or “platform” workers such as Uber drivers or delivery riders, a fast-growing industry is supplying similar technologies to employers across every sector from utilities and manufacturing to white collar and professional services.

According to a recent survey 1 in 5 employers are already using digital monitoring software or planning to do so off the back of the pandemic. Prospect’s own polling suggests a third of us are now subject to some form of surveillance software, including a growing number of us being watched via webcams whilst we work from home.

All too often employers have little understanding of the legal or ethical implications of these experiments. Software is often purchased and implemented with little consideration for its impact on our wellbeing, privacy or rights. US based Co-worker has recently published a database showing over 500 different monitoring tools are on the market. Employees, meanwhile, are rarely even informed.

This is why we often say data is the new frontline in workers’ rights. Digital technology and AI now have the power to hire us, manage us, reward us and, ultimately, fire us often with little or no human accountability.

This is about us

This is where trade unions have a vital role to play. The good news is that workplace reps and branches don’t need to be technological experts to be able to ask employers the right questions and be an effective voice for workers’ autonomy, dignity and rights.

There are a growing number of unions supporting members to assert our rights and to negotiate on data and AI. The TUC has published a new guide to AI for trade unionists, it provides a clear, plain language explanation of:

  • what “Artificial Intelligence” is, and how it is being used at work
  • what issues and problems this raises – for fairness, accountability, safety and quality of work
  • how trade unions can address these issues – as well as seize the opportunities that AI technologies offer

This guide complements work Prospect has done on protecting workers’ data rights  (see Prospect guide on GDPR) and right to disconnect. Community has recently added to this with a guide on Tech Agreements at work. Whilst Uni Global Union, to which Prospect is a member of, has helped to coordinate resources.

It’s all aimed at ensuring our members are equipped to navigate the changes that are rapidly transforming the world of work.

AI and data should be part of collective bargaining arrangements – just like pay, terms and conditions. Employers should be engaging reps in discussions about new technology, what it means for jobs and how it uses our data. We’ve already undertaken a pilot training course to help reps bargain for data; and we will be delivering more of this in the New Year. We supported the cross-party All Party Parliamentary Group on the Future of Work and the Institute for the Future of Work in their calls for an AI Accountability Act.

As a union that represents members across digital and tech fields, as well as those that work with data, we believe in the potential of new technology to make the future of work more inclusive, rewarding and empowering. The critical ingredient to get to this is giving workers themselves a voice and putting them in control. This guide gives us another tool in the box to make this a reality.

worker at screen with text projected onto face

Future of work, technology and data

Campaigning for better work for all in the new normal