Automation, AI, quantum computing: the TUC explores changing world of work

By Frances O’Grady

This year the UK-wide TUC is celebrating its 150th anniversary. It all started with Samuel Caldwell Nicholson, a typesetter and union officer. When a friend complained that the Social Science Congress ignored trade unions, he said “why not have a congress of our own?”.

We have a rich and colourful history to celebrate this year, but we’re not resting on past achievements. We are making it a year to look to the future too. We plan a series of reports on the future of work. And we are looking at how we keep union membership vital and strong.

The world of work has changed a great deal in the last century and a half. The working week is shorter, workplaces are safer, more workers have higher qualifications, and the jobs people do have changed. Samuel Caldwell Nicholson would more likely be a web designer than a typesetter if he were alive today.

We’re now on the crest of a new wave of change – a period that has already been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution.

Technologies like automation, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing and new production techniques will change how we work, where we work, when we work, and the relationship between workers and employers.

The internet has already dramatically changed many jobs. Email, real-time logistics and much more have helped increase productivity. But there have been serious downsides too.

App-based employers like Uber have used false-employment to dodge their responsibilities and deny workers their full rights. Digital monopolies like Facebook and Apple have dodged their taxes. This leaves public services that workers rely on, like the NHS, short of the funds they need.

Online retailers like Amazon claim to make their competitive margin through the exploitation of technology. But trade unions have exposed them as making margins through the exploitation of warehouse workers hidden from customer sight.

There is nothing inevitable about technology changing the world of work for the worse. Apps could just as well be used to empower workers as exploit them.

There is nothing inevitable about technology changing the world of work for the worse. Apps could just as well be used to empower workers as exploit them – but only if governments provide the right protections and pursue the right policies and priorities. Otherwise workers will continue to lose out from the application of technologies that should serve the common good.

We will start by looking at how technology is already changing work. Use of technology for surveillance and control of workforces is growing. Hand held digital devices determine workers’ routes around distribution depots. Key stroke monitors check up on office workers. And for all the talk of workers being replaced by robots, there is another fear: that human workers will be managed and regimented more like robots too.

Many new technologies are expected to boost productivity, and trade unions believe the benefits should be shared with workers.

We want workers to have a say in how technology is introduced into their workplace, so it improves jobs instead of making workers’ lives a misery. And we’re positive about the potential for technology to deliver more and better jobs. So we’re asking the Westminster government to set a “mission” for the UK to become one of the world’s top five digital economies.

Many new technologies are expected to boost productivity, and trade unions believe the benefits should be shared with workers. It must not become a private party for small elite of business magnates and shareholders.

We believe it’s time to be bold with our ambition. Many victories from our 150-year history are taken for granted by workers today. But there were times when rights to 20 days paid holiday or 39 weeks paid maternity leave were dismissed by some as pipe dreams.

UnionScot, published in The Times Scotland today.

It’s time to raise our sights again. We work to live, we do not live to work. So as technology revolutionises our economy and our prosperity, we must raise the quality of work. Every job must be a great job – well-paid, meaningful, and allowing time for a fulfilling life outside of work.

Gains from technology might also allow us to spend longer in retirement. The government plans to raise state pension age to 68 for workers now in their forties. Consultancy firm PWC have estimated that AI technologies alone will give GDP a 10% boost by 2030. If they’re right, we’d like to see those gains used to keep the state pension age at 65.

The world of work is changing faster for young people than other workers. They face a very different employment market to their parents, with temporary contracts, uncertain hours, low pay, and scant pension contributions. This cannot become the new normal.

The TUC will unveil a major new organising project for young workers

But young people are also much less likely to be trade union members than older workers. So organising young workers is our most important mission for the future.

Later this year, the TUC will unveil a major new organising project for young workers. We have worked closely with young people over many months to design it, following their lead. It’s one of the most exciting and innovative projects I have seen in my trade union career – so watch this space!

Frances O’Grady is General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress.