The future for workers and tech

Anna Mowbray presented the findings of Community’s report, ‘Sharing the Future: Workers and Technology in the 2020s’, at the Challenging Tech symposium, hosted by Cardiff University’s Data justice Lab. Here’s what she said:

In 2018, Community started our Commission on Workers and Technology. We did this as we were hearing reports that more and more jobs were vulnerable to automation, meaning almost all our members would be subject to some changes in their roles or job tasks.

We didn’t want to passively accept job losses or disruption. Instead, we wanted to get ahead of the game, think about these issues, and pre-empt some of what was coming.

We don’t think that technology is necessarily a bad thing for workers – it can be key to driving sorely needed increases in productivity, raise wages and create new jobs.

What matters is how change is implemented and how the rewards are shared. What we saw was missing from the conversation at the time was how workers would be affected.

When we started the project we never could have predicted the Coronavirus pandemic, but what we found was that many of the sectors most at risk from automation are the same sectors worst affected by the crisis – like hospitality and retail.

To make matters worse, these same sectors have historically hired the most people from unemployment; one in five entry-level jobs for young people joining the labour market are in hospitality.

In many ways, Coronavirus has accelerated already existing trends that automation was driving. We fear that as companies adapt to Coronavirus, lost jobs may be automated more quickly, with a recent study showing two fifths of global executives had invested in accelerating automation since the crisis started.

Immediate support is therefore desperately needed for those worst affected, but this should be done in way that will also help to face the coming automation.

The report the Commission produced focused on four key themes: worker voice, giving workers their fair share in the rewards, ensuring that workers have the support to adapt to technology change, and making work better.

In a survey in 2019, 65% of respondents told had not been consulted the last time technology was introduced at their workplaces. Listening to workers’ voices is crucial – employee feedback helps to make better decisions, increases engagement, and facilitates innovation.

Our Commission found evidence that workplaces with collective bargaining see more innovation in terms of the company’s products, and increased productivity.

In Austria a steel company called Voelstapine automated its steelmaking, moving to electric arc furnaces which use only 4 workers instead of 1000 in traditional furnaces. Since they consulted with the workforce in advance, steelworkers were able to move into roles like data science instead of losing their jobs.

Unfortunately, not everyone is getting a say about technology change at work. The government should make it easier for workers to create a workplace council and workers should have the right to elect an employee director to the board.

Of course, neither replace the vital role of unions so it must also become easier for workers to get unions’ support. This means reforming the law so that unions can talk to workers and help them to organise more easily.

We want to see a social partnership model, at national, sectoral, and regional levels creating dialogue between businesses, workers, and the government.

To get a fair share in the rewards, as well as ensuring that technology helps create jobs, it should create higher pay for low and middle earners, and we must ensure that we do not allow it to widen existing inequalities.

Some growth industries are underpaid and undervalued, such as care work and early years. In other cases, we’ve seen technology improve a firm’s productivity, but not translate into better pay and conditions for workers perhaps because workers have reduced bargaining power or because of increased competition (such as bricks and mortar companies squeezing costs to complete with online retail).

We want to make sure that pay goes up for workers on low and middle incomes. Collective bargaining is key to this.  The National Living Wage must also keep rising – to at least 2/3 of median earnings by 2050.

Our report also proposes minimum standards for employment, developed through social partnership, for workers in key industries like social care. To ensure workers get a fair share, we must also focus on places that need the most help.

Many ex-industrial towns and coastal communities are struggling because they were not adequately supported to manage earlier upheavals in industry and technology. They typically rely on just one or two industries or employers. We need policies that enable these places to expand and diversify their economies.

Towns should have their own jobs plan – a strategy should inform both transport and training in the area. On top of this investment plans should deliver things like full fibre broadband, transport connections, energy projects, rejuvenating high streets and public service buildings.

Support to adapt is critical too. At Community we think training is a huge part of the answer to help people into new roles, adapt to changes to existing ones, or recover from the economic impact of Coronavirus.

That’s why we’ve been working with our members to identify the skills they have now in their current jobs and pinpoint training and development needs.

One thing that worries us is evidence from previous industrial transitions that it takes generations or more for the workforce to recover. For example, adult male wages in former mining towns remain 10% less than the median.

We need to build just transition plans to make sure that the people in jobs now are able to reskill and adapt to how their role changes, or to get new jobs in the face of automation and net zero.

We recently released a report with the Alex Ferry Foundation, looking at the case study of the very sudden closure of the former SSI steelworks in Redcar and the deep human cost of not getting that right. There we saw that workers’ wages didn’t recover to the levels of 2015 though most got new jobs, they tended to be more precarious, and worse, there were significant effects on mental wellbeing and self-esteem.

It’s best for people never to become unemployed in the first place through long term planning. If it cannot be avoided, then working and training together is the best way to help people get back into employment. Traditionally the government has taken a “work first” approach, but particularly in response to a crisis like this it’s not the right one.

Job seekers of all ages must be offered high-quality training relevant to their needs and local employment opportunities. Most importantly, after a significant spell without work everyone should be offered a guaranteed placement either full-time education, apprenticeship, or a kickstart job with accompanying training.

People often struggle to access training because they can’t afford to be away from work. That’s why we think the government should give people a training allowance to enable them to work and learn.

Employers can really help here by thinking about their workforce needs of the future. Can someone be retrained from the job they’re in now over a number of months or years? Can they share their insights about what skills or competencies workers may need in future?

An example of this is at Zurich insurance, where they used software to plot out the future profile of its workforce and is running programmes to help workers to reskill into areas of future high demand.

Unfortunately, employer investment in skills and training is generally low in the U.K. – spending on vocational training here is half the European average. Wholesale transformation of adult skills and a massive culture change is needed.

Finally, our report talks about using technology to make jobs better.

Sometimes technology does make jobs worse: driving social isolation, insecurity, or exploitation, powering excessive surveillance or work intensity, or transferring risk from companies to individuals (as in the platform and gig economies).

Tech is even facilitating or encouraging discrimination, with Artificial Intelligence used for recruitment decisions or monitoring technology not accounting for disabilities.

To combat these trends, technology must be designed actively to make work better, less stressful, and less dangerous.  This can be achieved through meaningful consultation and comprehensive regulation, such as the right to disconnect.

In the data sphere, workers should be consulted about how their data is used. Algorithmic decision making needs to be simple enough that decisions can be explained, and we need a right to have human review of decisions.

Now our report is published, we want to create real change in workplaces.

We have developed a set of principles that apply to every workplace, and detailed guidance that reps can use when they negotiate around technology.

We must keep expanding the scope of negotiation and consultation, so they encompass these important issues. To do so ensures work gets better, which has always been at the core of what trade unions do.

Change cannot be something that happens to workers, it has to be with them and for them. There is real potential for us to build a better working world. And workers are ready and welcoming of this change, as long as they get a say.

To read the full report, click here.

If you are a member of Community and need help or advice, please contact us at or on 0800 389 6332.

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