Workers must have a voice in our changes if we are to embrace new technology

If we want an industrial strategy that works, we need one that is geared to the future, not pining for the past.

According to OECD estimates, more than one in 10 UK jobs face a more than 70 per cent probability of complete automation, and another three in 10 are likely to see ‘significant change’ to tasks and content as a result of AI and robotics.

If developed and deployed imaginatively and collaboratively, these new technologies could offer exciting opportunities to enhance work while massively increasing productivity. But instead they are arousing increasing anxiety, and now risk simply adding to workers’ sense of insecurity and disempowerment while exacerbating the worst features of the low-wage, low-productivity business models that are far too prevalent in the UK economy.

We should be optimistic but we need to get technological change right. In People Power, a new report from the Changing Work Centre – a Fabian Society/Community initiative – I argue the role and voice of workers in how change happens should be central to this discussion.

YouGov polling conducted for Prospect in May 2019, revealed that 58 per cent of working people have little or no confidence that they would be consulted or involved in any tech changes at work. This is why the failure of the government’s industrial strategy to address this issue is such a fatal shortcoming.

The evidence shows that economies in which workers are involved and represented have the highest levels of long-term research and development. The evidence also shows that employers which recognise trade unions are more likely to train their staff, and take equal opportunities seriously.

Yet the government’s industrial strategy has almost nothing to say on the active involvement and engagement of workers in the future of work.

Prospect works in many of the industries and sectors that the government points to as central to its industrial strategy – from key export sectors such as manufacturing, agri-tech and the creative industries, to providers of essential economic infrastructure such as energy and transport.

Every day we see how collective bargaining and workforce participation can drive skills development, enable workplace change and the take-up of new technologies, and secure the engagement and input that businesses need from their employees if they are to succeed. To cite one example, our BECTU sector recently concluded a groundbreaking national agreement with the film industry covering crew working on Major Motion Pictures, one of the most exciting areas of growth in our economy today.

There are three principles that are important in getting this right: trust, transparency and transmission.
Too often automation is talked about as something happening to working people, not with them.

Second, we need a much more detailed discussion about transparency and the application of technology. Concerns over data privacy, data ownership and how information is used to monitor workers need to be recognised by business and government. 

Finally, transmission. Workers need a voice or agency over how change happens to them. This is not about turning back the clock, but creating a duty on organisations to engage with their workforce.

We stand on the brink of a future where more and more power and wealth in our society will accrue to a small group of people who are rich in capital and who understand and control the technology on which our economy will depend. It is vital that we choose a different path where we reassert the right of all workers to have a say and a stake in their workplace and the wider economy. 

  • Andrew Pakes is director of communications and research at Prospect.


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