Sharing the future

Community and the Fabian Society partnered on a project known as the Commission on workers and technology. This week the Commission launched it’s final report and findings. Community’s Anna Mowbray delves deep into the issues with Yvette Cooper MP, Andrew Harrop of the Fabian Society and Lauren Crowley of Community in a podcast you can listen to here:

See a transcript of the podcast here:

Anna: It doesn’t matter what industry you work in or what your job is– technological change will affect all of us.

That’s why back in 2018 Community and the Fabian Society came together in a joint research initiative called the   Changing work centre. The goal of this research was to understand how technology would be changing the world of work and what could be done to make sure that people were prepared for this change.

Clearly, since that work was first commissioned, the COVID-19 pandemic has massively impacted the world of work and exacerbated the trends that were already present.

In this podcast, I’ll explore the work of the Commission, through a series of interviews- to understand the findings, what they mean for our jobs, and what the effect of COVID-19 has been.

The chair of the commission on workers and technology is Yvette cooper, MP, and I spoke to her about the importance of the commission.

First off then, thank you very much for doing this, really appreciate it. So, to start off with then, could you just explain, erm, why did you decide that you wanted to chair this commission?

Yvette: You can see the pace of technological change, and it has huge implications for everybody’s jobs. We’re going to see jobs changing in so many different ways. But there’s a real risk that some people will just lose out. That even though there are new opportunities being created that for other people might see their jobs lost or see growing inequality or exploitation, and that’s not fair. We need everybody to be able to benefit from the new technology, the advantages that it can bring. We need to be able to use it to make sure that people can get better jobs not worse jobs.

But if we just stand back and leave that to the market, if we just think it’s going to all happen automatically, then I think that’s when we will see inequality grow. So, to me the importance of this commission was it was properly looking at a workers’ eye view on technological change.

Looking at it in workplaces right across the country, listening to working people about how technology’s changing and how you make sure that everybody gets the benefits from that rather than have some people just unfairly lose out.

Anna: So, it is important for workers then that we adopt new technology as a country? That we take those steps in advance?

Yvette: So new technology can bring all kinds of benefits. It has helped us through the COVID crisis, it’s helped develop a vaccine at record speed, it’s helped people work from home in jobs that might otherwise have been destroyed. But it also can end up destroying jobs and then people can’t get the new jobs so the question is how do you make the most of the new technology so that we can have a greener economy, so that we can have a fairer economy, and so that we can improve the quality of jobs rather than instead actually see people lose out or find that jobs get worse as technology changes?

Anna: So, what can we do then, what can we do to prevent that kind of widening inequality as a result of technology?

At the heart of it is making sure that working people get more of a voice in what happens when technology changes. So sometimes it’ll be about how to make the most of the new jobs that are created by technology. How do people get the skills? How do people get the training? How do people get the kinds of support they need to get new jobs if their own job is being replaced?

Sometimes, it’ll be about how the gov makes sure there is proper support in place. For example, in the middle of the covid crisis when we know that hospitality jobs and retail jobs are being hit by a double whammy. They’re being hit both by the covid crisis, which is having such huge consequences and also by the pace of technology which means some of those jobs might not come back, if people are shopping more online for example, if people are ordering food through their phones rather than speaking to a member of staff to order food. So that’s why it’s really important that you take action to support people when those changes are taking place. So, we’re calling for government to support people, particualrly hospitality workers and retail workers, government to provide support to help create new jobs and to guarantee people that they can get new jobs.

Anna: And obviously, it’s not just certain sectors that you’re worried about being left behind, it’s also places, and parts of the country?

Yvette: We’ve seen in the COVID crisis, the big impact on city centres, and particularly think of small retail or sandwich shops or city centres that have been closed down because people are working from home. But what we’ve also been looking at is, that’s what’s happening in the middle of the Covid crisis, what happens over the longer term? Which are the areas that might be hardest hit by automation, by automation in the manufacturing sector or in tourism and hospitality? And what we found is that’s particularly towns that are being harder hit, and particularly towns that might have a lot of jobs in tourism or hospitality, but also other kinds of towns where maybe people are doing lots of admin jobs, or in particular areas in manufacturing that might end up being replaced by automation. Well, where are the new jobs going to come from?

We need investment in those towns so that we can generate new jobs of the future. So that you can get the digital infrastructure for digital jobs in those places and you don’t just see the digital jobs and the highest tech jobs be in the cities.

Anna: So clearly this commission has been running since before Covid. What changes since the COVID crisis this year?

Yvette: Well, I think before the COVID crisis struck we were probably more optimistic about the way in which technology could help us generate new jobs and that there was also time for people who worked in areas where jobs might be being replaced by machines it was actually, there was time for people to retrain, to get new jobs, and also potentially to get better jobs as well. I think the problem with what we’ve seen in the covid crisis is that it’s just put automation on steroids, it’s ended up accelerating the process, making it harder for people to keep up and has made a lot of people unemployed in the meantime and that makes it harder to get new jobs too.

So that’s why we’ve described this as like a double whammy hitting people from both Covid and the pace of technological change. But I think therefore has made us much more worried about what’s going to happen. Much more worried that it’s workers who are on low incomes who are likely to be hardest hit. People who don’t have the qualifications for the new jobs are going to be most disadvantaged. They’re being hardest hit by the COVID crisis, and could be hardest hit by the changing pace of technology unless there is proper government support unless there is proper partnership between employers and trade unions to make sure that people can get the help they need to get the new jobs.

We’ve got to make sure that people benefit when technology changes, when you see rising productivity and growth. That means everybody has to benefit including the lowest paid workers who often get left behind. That’s unfair. We need much stronger partnerships between employers and trade unions to get working people a better deal.

I think we’ve also got to start valuing some of the really important jobs that are gonna grow in the future, that aren’t gonna be replaced by new technology, like caring jobs, which are too often seen as being low skilled low paid when actually as we’ve seen in the covid crisis, they are some of the most important jobs in the country. So, we’re calling for the government to set out a plan to raise the status, the value, and the pay for some of our caring jobs, some of our key worker jobs.  The kinds of jobs that are going to grow in the future they’re really important, but too often they don’t end up getting a fair deal even though often you’ve got people working incredibly hard in really important jobs.

And we’ve also got to have a plan to increase pay for some of these really important, currently low paid jobs, but jobs that are gonna grow. In the new economy it’s not all going to be about doing high paid jobs, it’s also going to be about more and more caring jobs. Well, we’ve got to start valuing those skills and start properly paying workers who are doing really important caring jobs.

Anna: Great well thank you ever so much for your time.

Yvette: Great.

Anna: I spoke to Andrew Harrop the General Secretary of the Fabian society, and one of the report authors, to go into some of the details of what the report describes.

Thanks very much for your time Andrew.

Andrew: It’s a pleasure Anna

Anna:  In this report we’re talking about automation, so, silly question to start with, does that mean robots are going to take all of our jobs?

Andrew: When we started writing this report it was before the coronavirus crisis and at that time, we were quite bullish that employment was likely to remain high even though there were going to be huge transitions in the world of work. We didn’t think that the overall number of jobs was necessarily going to reduce. The issues that we worried about were some jobs disappearing and the pain of a transition for people to get into new jobs that were being created. So, the overall answer, at least when we started the project was that no, the absolute number of jobs wouldn’t fall but that there would be huge change in the world of work.

I have to say now, we’re not so certain. Given the huge pressures that the Covid crisis is creating. And a lot of the sectors that are most hard hit by Covid are also the sorts of jobs that can be automated. So, for example hospitality jobs, you know, are relatively easy compared to others, to automate. And it may be that some employers use the sort of, you know, the two side by side: the trends in automation and the public health crisis to actually accelerate, y’know, much faster than we expected automation of jobs. And that could lead to fewer jobs overall.

Anna: Mm, so who do you think’s most likely to be affected by this change? So, people listening might be saying “well what I do can’t be automated” so what would your message be to people who might be thinking that?

Andrew: Well technology change is going to affect everyone’s jobs, but in lots of different ways. So, anyone who is sent home to work from home for a few months during the Covid crisis, their job’s been affected by technology, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t have a job to go back to. But the people that we’re most concerned about are those in jobs which are at high risk of being automated, or of substantial tasks in the job being automated even if it isn’t in its entirety.

And the analysis that researchers have carried out, not just in the UK but across the world is that the most automatable jobs over the next 5 to 10 years tend to be done by people with lower skills and relatively disadvantaged social backgrounds. So more likely to not have qualifications, more likely to be women, more likely to live in disadvantaged areas of the country, and to be from a minority ethnic background, to be disabled. So, lots of the existing risk factors that we have are also associated with the possibility that your job will disappear or very significantly change.

And that’s why it’s really important that the government and unions and employers are very proactive in providing support up front before these problems really emerge to help those groups that are already at a higher disadvantage.

Anna: So, in the report, you explore kind of two possible versions of the future, can you kind of talk us through what those two possibilities are and what we can do to make sure that we take the better route?

Andrew: Yes. So, we set out in this project to be optimists. To think about how can technology be a force for good, that really helps people have a better working life? And that’s the positive outcome, the positive future that we talk about where people have more flexibility, more security, more control over their work and better working conditions. Because technology often does make working life easier and better. And a good example of that has been the flexibility that the COVID crisis has forced upon us with homeworking, or very rapid change [to] work empowered by technology.  So, it can very often be a force for good.

But in our research, we also saw examples of the more dystopian future where technology goes hand in hand with work getting worse. And the sorts of things we saw were examples of very poor working conditions and low paid work, often very insecure work— not traditional employee jobs but contract work or platform work, where people didn’t feel that they had security or control.

And that’s often been, sort of, accelerated by tech. Whether that’s a specific app to do something, like with some platform jobs, or whether it’s, as we saw in some workplaces, very tight supervision and control and surveillance of workers, who felt that they didn’t have any sort of breathing space, personal space around them; that everything was being regimented for them. And we’ve seen examples of that. What we say in the report is that we’ve seen that in pockets. So, we’re not suggesting that that’s the experience of most people.

But it’s happening often enough for us to be concerned and for action to be needed now. To make sure that’s not the future that spreads rather than the positive future where people use technology to have more fulfilling jobs and more control.

Anna: So, speaking of that action then, what can governments and employers do now to try to make sure that we build that positive future?

Andrew: So, the report really looks at four areas where we think it will make a big difference to people’s working life as technology improves.

The first is about making sure that workers get a fair share of the rewards of new technology. Fundamentally that starts off with pay. When employers use technology to make their work more productive then that should include workers getting a fair share in those gains. And it’s about place and disadvantaged groups as well as being just about averages- making sure that areas of the country that have the greatest challenges are benefitting, and the people from different social backgrounds.

So actually, one example where you really need to make sure you are on top of things is preventing discrimination lined to tech, so people from all backgrounds are able to get on in the world of w- this sort of tech powered work.

The second area is about training and support to get back into work. So, this is where we’ve rewritten our report quite a lot since the Covid crisis because it’s so important at the moment. Where people are being forced out of work, a lot of them will have to change occupations and change their skills, because the sorts of jobs a lot of them will have just been doing won’t exist in sufficient numbers.

So, there’s a huge package of proposals from the commissioners about how to basically change our adult learning system quite fundamentally. That includes a lot more support from the government both for people in work and at the moment unemployed. But also, a much bigger role for employers, supported by their trade unions, to make sure that when people are in work, they are being supported to constantly update their skills, and also to sort of like the ability to train in the workplace for their next job or whatever, ooh, occupational shift could come.

Then the third area of recommendations is about the quality of work. So that’s about making sure that when technology is introduced it leads to jobs getting better not worse.

And making sure that we don’t that technology isn’t used to make jobs more insecure and atomised. You know, there’s a risk that traditional employee jobs get replaced by lots of tasks, where individuals have to be contractors and freelancers rather than employees, to do lots of individual bite sized chunks, which don’t have any fulfilment or job security around them.

And then the final area we look at is good partnership between workers and their representatives and employers. And really, we call for a fundamental shift. For Britain to become more like Northern European countries that do their industrial relations so much better on a partnership basis, where trade unions and workers hand in hand with employers and also government both at national level and local and sectoral level are working to shape the future together.

So that means much better consultation and collective bargaining, and rights in the workplace. But it also means, at that more strategic level, that you’ve got the government employers and trade unions working together to really shape and proactively change sectors and adapt and prepare for technology. Rather than always being on the back foot, and it happening sort of by surprise, without anticipation, which is often how it feels with sudden technology changes.

Anna: Yeah so, it’s about getting their first, so we are ready for it. Speaking of that, what can individuals do, themselves, now, to sort of be ready for technology change. I know you talked a lot about what government and employers should be doing. But as a person listening to this, what’s the message to that individual?

Andrew: So, one of the things we found… We spoke to a lot of individual workers, including a lot of community members, about their expectations for how the world of work is going to change. And most people are fairly positive about technology and their working lives in the next five years or so.

But people tend to underestimate how much change is going to affect them personally. Even if they are in jobs which are actually at high risk of being automated or [of] big chunks of the job being automated, they don’t think it will ever happen to them.

So, you know, my overall message to people is, you really do need to be ready for your own job to change quite fundamentally over the next five years. And think about, your skills, your resilience and sort of preparedness for change.

Most people don’t, after the age of 25 or so, don’t regularly go back to learning or training. Really, what we want to think about is everyone investing in their own working lives and their own future skills and careers, all the time through their working life.

And obviously you want your employer- good employers should be doing that for you and with you but even if they’re not, thinking about either outside work, or talking to your Trade Union about whether they could support you to, on work time, to be much more in control of your own skills and training needs, and really pushing, what you think you need, not just to do your current jobs but to prepare you for possible futures that may come in 3 or 5 years’ time.

Anna: Yeah, so it’s sort of your readiness to be there for the change that’s coming.

Andrew: Exactly.

Anna: I also wanted to find out more about how technology can affect inequality, so I spoke to Lauren Crowley, head of Equalities at Community Union to understand this important dimension of the debate about technology change.

Hi Lauren, thanks for joining.

Lauren: Hi Anna, thanks for inviting me on.

Anna: So, let’s start off straight away. How can technology cause or entrench inequality?

Lauren: Well, I think there’s a real opportunity to create a different relationship between work and individuals. I think people need work, a sense that you are contributing to your society as part of the social contract.

If benefits of technology change are managed there’s opportunities for a future of better work. More freedom and flexibility over work, and more shared wealth as well as social benefits. But there’s also a risk that we deepen inequalities. Society produces more but wealth continues to go to the top.

And we have a historic failure as a country of supporting people to go through economic transitions. And we’ll do a huge disservice to the country if we sit back and let the market decide what technology does to the economy.

There’re some really good examples, actually of where companies are workforce planning to reskills their workers five to ten years in advance, based on the investments that companies are making in technology. So, for example, in Austria, there’s a company called Voelstapine, [which] automated its steelmaking by moving to an electric arc furnace, which only requires four workers to produce the same amount of steel it previously needed a thousand jobs for. But they identified the workforce changes five years in advance, and retrained its workforce to become data scientists, and digital experts.

And Community, we’re currently piloting a similar project with Zurich insurance, an industry that’s undergoing rapid technology change to forecast how they as a company can retain and retrain workers.

So, it can be done. But employer investment in skills and training is about 25% less than it was ten years ago. So, we need wholesale transformation of skills provision to ensure that inequality isn’t further entrenched in the future world of work.

Anna: Thanks Lauren, that’s really interesting. So, what can be done then to mitigate the effects that technology might have on various different equalities groups?

Lauren: Well, I think there’s two ways of looking at technology driven change with regards to equalities. And we’re hearing a bit about it in the press at the minute. But the first is that people who belong to equalities groups are already vulnerable to change in society. And we’ve seen that in quite a pronounced way over the last few months with the coronavirus pandemic.

You know, people from equalities groups are generally already disadvantaged, already earning less. As a whole they’re more likely to be less skilled, less likely to be able to access training, more likely to lose their jobs and less likely to be able to relocate for work.

But we can put measures in place to prevent that. If we have policy makers, companies and trade unions that are willing to work together to make it happen. But I can’t see a whole lot of policy coming out of the government that suggests it’s on their radar.

I mean, I get they’re dealing with a few things right now but it’s just not an issue that can wait. Technology is already changing work and if we wait until it’s happened to make interventions then we know that it’s the disadvantaged groups and towns, the working class that will lose out the most.

The second aspect to consider related to equalities is that digital technologies are creating new forms of discrimination, we’re seeing discrimination entrenched in technology right from the initial creation of the tech and we’re seeing technology used to discriminate against workers, through use of data, surveillance and monitoring.

So, we need new legislation to protect workers against this. One of the things that we’ve put in the report is to establish new nationally recognised standards of good work that employers are held to.

And we need a complete review of equality law in relation to automation that clamps down on tech driven discrimination before it emerges as a serious issue. And this will ensure that technology works for all workers and for a fair distribution of opportunities.

Anna: Mm, so presumably that’s things like monitoring in the workplace, tracking people, finding out what they’re doing, things like that?

Lauren: Yeah, and one of the things that we’ve seen in our evidence gathering, for example…. the things that we’ve heard about happening, to do with tracking, like you say, but it’s used in a way that disadvantages further people who come from equalities groups.  So not taking into account different types of needs, timing people when they step away from their desk, when they maybe have a disability, and then that information being used in a disciplinary process against the worker down the line. Which is something that is absolutely discrimination, but we don’t have the kind of protections in place yet to protect people from this kind of adverse impact that technology is creating in workplaces.

Anna: So, one of the, kind of, big lines of inequality, that we often talk about, that we often hear about in the press is regional inequalities. We hear the government talking quite a lot about left behind areas, left behind parts of the country.  So, what can be done to help those areas of the country, how can we “level up” those places that look like they might be left behind by technology change?

Lauren: Well, we know technology change poses risks to certain areas of the country. Those are generally communities with lower earnings and productivity that are at higher risk of, as you say, being left behind. They’re generally, rural, coastal, ex industrial communities, and the thing that’s quite perverse actually is that these are places that often already struggle for employment and investment and services.

They are also in some prominent cases, the same places that suffered from high unemployment in the 1980s, and we’re still seeing the effect of that now. Research has shown that communities and towns that suffered large job losses back then still have higher levels of drug use, and other long-term impact on life outcomes.

You know, male wages in former mining communities are still 10% less than the median. People and entire communities were left behind, and we didn’t create any provision for people to adapt. But we have the foresight now about change that is coming to ensure that that doesn’t happen again.

So, we want to see local jobs plans to inform local training, we want skills funding in local areas, as well as investment plans to coordinate and prioritise public investment, highlighting cases of unjustified underspending.

Significant economic power and funding should be devolved to towns and cities including devolved adult education budgets, and gradually devolving employment support. And that’s really just a start to make sure that those communities aren’t left behind again as you say.

But a whole lot more is needed from the government to think about, with the foresight that we’ve got now making sure that all the wealth doesn’t concentrate into certain areas.

Anna: Mm, and, from a union perspective, how can unions also evolve and change to help better support their members when this kind of change is coming, including technology change?

I think this is a crucial question actually, and I don’t think we’ve got all of the answers yet. The role of trade unions in the future world of work entirely hinges on what we do in response to tech. Yeah, it goes to the heart of trade unionism. Trade unions were created to deal with the challenges posed by the industrial revolution, and we’ve got a situation now that’s similar in many ways, and we’ve learned lessons from the past, that stand us well to deal with this change.

But we won’t get it right if we also just continue doing things the way we always have done. Much of the way that we Trade Unions work now hasn’t changed in 100 years. And we know that technology has been changing work for a long time, but the pace is now likely to accelerate— changing working in ways that is unrecognisable and disproportionately impacting particular communities.

At Community we’ve got a proud history of navigating change for our members – when our traditional industries changed over the last century, we stayed with them beyond the workplace, helping them to reskill and find new work. And that means our union looks very different now than it did in terms of the members that we represent and the industries.

Well, workplaces need to change so that change is planned and managed with workers at its heart not as an afterthought. But that does mean that Trade Unions need to change too, and we need to encourage innovation and modernisation.

And there’s an opportunity in this for Trade Unions to be of huge value to workers and to society. Trade Unions already deliver so much skills training to workers.

Evidence shows that strong worker voice and representation leads to better management of transitions and better long-term outcomes for both businesses and workers. But we need meaningful consultation and influence over technology change by cooperating with employers and gov at every level.

Many people in the trade union movement are familiar with this phrase “nothing about us without us”. Yet I think in the majority of the economy that is the case, that is what’s happening, and that’s exactly why we set up this commission.

You know, there’s a plethora of research emerging that tries to predict the impact of automation but what’s missing is the voice of the worker and how we shape the change as it’s happening so that the long-term situation is good for the workers as a whole.

Now, the UK needs a strategy to realise a future where everyone across our society can work in fulfilling and well-paid jobs. And I believe this report sets out a compelling vision for how we can start to build that future. We need everybody to get to the table and take on the task.

Anna: Thank you for listening to this podcast, if you want to read the full report, entitled Sharing the Future, Workers and Technology in the 2020s, you can download it from

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