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.
Our commission has looked carefully at how we can best ensure workers voices are at the forefront of technology change.
We want to change the culture in workplaces up and down the country so that workforces are always involved in developing ideas and making decisions about new technology.
Often, when there is a problem with the implementation of a new technology it’s because workers have not been involved. When we surveyed workers in 2019, 65% said they had not been consulted the last time technology was introduced.
Worker voice is a highly effective tool for helping managers to make better decisions, increasing workforce engagement and enabling innovation. It’s therefore vital that worker consultation forms the core of employers’ approaches to technology change. An ongoing conversation about technology and skills must happen in every workplace, and Trade Unions have a key role to play in helping manage the impact of automation.
But not everyone is getting a say about technology change at work. One problem is that not everyone has the protection of a trade union, which makes it harder for them to have their voices heard. Worryingly, it’s those at most risk of automation who are least likely to have the protection of a union. Our commission found that amongst the most vulnerable workers and those in precarious work, union density was lower than average.
The evidence shows workers in workplaces with a union have a wage premium, and tend to get more annual leave, work less unpaid overtime, and have better sick pay and family leave benefits. Our commission also found that workplaces with collective bargaining see more innovation in terms of the company’s products and increased productivity.
We believe increased worker consultation can make things better for workers, firms and our country. At a workplace level we want to see worker consultation in more workplaces because of its proven benefits. To get there requires normalising workforce consultation in every single workplace.
To formalise this, the government should change to the law to make it easier for workers to create a workplace council. All workplace councils should have the right to consult with management about technology, pay and training.
Workers should also have the right to elect an employee director to the board if they wish. Worker directors can be a powerful way for a worker representative to encourage boards’ long-term thinking and scrutinise their decisions.
Of course, neither workplace councils nor worker directors replace the vital role of unions.
Our commission found that it must become easier for workers to get the support of unions, including updating trade union law, giving unions enhanced rights to speak to workers as well as making recognition agreements simpler to secure. We believe that collective bargaining is the best way to get a good deal for all of us, and hope that the trend of increased trade union membership that started in 2020 will continue.
Finally, our commission proposes a model called social partnership, whereby governments, employers and employees work together to decide how jobs change in response to new technology, at a level above that of the firm. This is a collaborative and flexible approach that works for the modern world of work.
We want to see a social partnership model at all levels. Outcomes will be improved if everyone comes to the table and helps to make strategic decisions about technology and the future of work.
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.