At the Commission on Workers and Technology, we’ve spent two years speaking to workers up and down the country, everywhere from an insurance office to a factory floor to a supermarket, investigating what the rapidly changing world of technology will mean for workers. In this blog series, find out what we learned.
For the last decade, the UK’s productivity growth has been low. That means we didn’t increase the amount we produced during each hour of work. Long term, the solutions to improve productivity are investment, innovation and new technology.
We’ve not always been great at using new technology in the UK. For example, we only have 85 industrial robots per 10,000 people compared to 200 in the USA, 322 in Germany and 710 in South Korea.
The UK has a lot of potential – we’re a world leader in AI innovation. We believe that done right, technology change in workplaces can lead to higher earnings. Technology also has the power to create new jobs in potential key growth areas, many of which involve relationship-based skills and tasks that are less likely to be at risk of automation.
Of course, as well as ensuring that technology helps create jobs, we must ensure that we do not allow it to widen existing inequalities.
Some of the industries where workers who change industry might go to – such as care work and early years – remain underpaid and undervalued. In other cases, we’ve seen technology improve a firm’s productivity but not translate into better pay and conditions for workers.
Certain groups are more at risk of automation, including those with low education, women, the youngest and the oldest workers. These groups are most at risks because they are overrepresented in occupations with tasks that can be easily automated. Parts of the country where such jobs are concentrated are also likely to be worst off.
So, what can be done to ensure high employment, productivity improvements, rising wages and a fair distribution of opportunities between people and places?
First, pay must go up for workers on low and middle incomes. The national living wage must keep rising, to at least 2/3 of median earnings by 2050.
Firms should be asked to narrow the gap between the lowest, middle and highest paid employees, with the requirement for publicly listed firms to report their pay ratio between the CEO and the top middle and bottom quarters of employees extended to all privately owned firms.
It’s important that we can come together to bargain for better pay and conditions – our commission found that unionisation is typically good for a firm’s productivity. We want to require large firms to consult with workers. Many good employers already do this, and we want to extend this across the whole economy. Workers should be consulted on new technology, as well as on pay and conditions.
We propose minimum standards for employment in key areas. These standards would be developed by unions, employers and local authorities working together to set out what workers in industries like social care should accept as a minimum.
To ensure workers get a fair share, we must also focus on places that need the most help.
The government must help disadvantaged towns to adapt. Many ex-industrial towns and coastal communities are struggling because they were not adequately supported to manage earlier upheavals in industry and technology, typically relying on just one or two industries or employers. We want policies that enable these places to expand and diversify their economies.
All but the most affluent towns should have a jobs plan covering transport, infrastructure and training provision. Each town should have a training and skills fund as well as an investment plan including things like full fibre broadband, transport connections, rejuvenating high streets and public service buildings. Having all this in one place allows towns to decide their own top priorities.
The Commission for Workers and Technology is part of the Changing Work Centre, established by Community and the Fabian Society in February 2016 to explore progressive ideas for the modern world of work.
If you want to read more you can download the full report from our website, where you can also find resources for reps and members about managing technology in the workplace, and access to all our training and learning opportunities.