Home / Break Tech / Automation could destroy millions of jobs. We have to deal with it now | Yvette Cooper | Opinion

Automation could destroy millions of jobs. We have to deal with it now | Yvette Cooper | Opinion

The robots are coming, artificial intelligence is expanding, yet no one is doing enough to make sure workers benefit rather than losing out. According to a new survey, a quarter of the workforce think their job won’t be needed in future. Many of us expect the technological revolution to be as disruptive as the industrial revolution. This could bring amazing opportunities and emancipation, but also new forms of exploitation, deeper inequalities, injustices and anger.

Trades unions and communities can’t just stand by and hope for the best. If we want technological change to benefit everyone rather than widening inequality then we need to start preparing now. It took decades for new legislation, the growth of trade unions and the emergence of the welfare state to tackle some of the injustices of the industrial revolution and start harnessing the benefits for everyone. We cannot afford to wait that long this time. The labour movement needs to lead the way.

That is why I am working with Community, the trade union, and the Fabian Society to launch a new commission on workers and technology. The commission will take a “worker’s eye view”, starting in those workplaces across the country that are facing the fastest technological and industrial change. It will be looking for the practical and immediate things that government, employers and unions should be doing to make sure people are empowered by advances in technology and not just exploited, abandoned or let down.

The commission’s initial survey of workers has found that only 44% think their current job will be improved by technology, while 20% think it will get worse. And if the 23% who believe their roles may not be needed at all are right, that means huge disruption – potentially 6 million people needing to move into new kinds of work. Back in 2015, the Bank of England estimated that even more jobs – up to 15 million – were at risk from robots and automation.

Importantly, most people are optimistic about their own ability to adapt. Some 73% of workers say they are confident they can update their skills if automation affects their job. However the support is not in place to help them do that. Just one in 10 workers think the government is taking steps to prepare them for new technologies; just one in four think their employer is taking action; and only one in six employees with a trade union in their workplace say it is helping to prepare them.

Whether changes to the world of work come from automation or algorithms, everyone should be able to take advantage of the positive opportunities they bring. For example, technology could support people who want to work more flexibly or help people move on from routine, repetitive tasks into more rewarding work.

Automating routine calculations and data assembly tasks could free up workers to use their strategic and emotional intelligence instead. In one pilot scheme in Bremen, Germany, the postal service has teamed up with local government, healthcare and welfare associations to allow mail carriers to call in on elderly citizens as part of their daily rounds, opening up new roles while reducing the burden on care providers.

But such schemes rely on workers having the support to move from their old jobs to good-quality new ones – something that too often does not happen. Manual or low-skilled workers find themselves downgraded into increasingly insecure and worse-paid jobs instead.

Harnessing technological change for the good also requires vigilance and action to prevent new technology being used to control rather than emancipate the workforce. Amazon has patented designs for electronic wristbands to monitor how quickly staff work – and there have been serious concerns raised about the welfare of workers at its warehouses. Far from relieving them of menial tasks, new technology can be used to force humans to work as if they were machines.

We are at a crossroads. Technological change opens up the possibility of a positive transformation of the labour market, but there are significant risks that work itself could change for the worse. Politicians, trade unions and business leaders must act now to ensure technological change leads to plentiful, good-quality jobs for all. And, as the TUC has suggested, they must learn from the partnership approach taken in Germany, where workers, business and civil society have had the chance to shape the direction of policy in response to a government white paper on reimagining work.

My commission will be looking for practical action in key areas: how government can ensure new jobs are good jobs; how to enable workers to reskill; and how business and unions can work together to help workers navigate change. We’ll be holding evidence sessions, visiting workplaces and hosting public debates.

At this moment of huge turbulence in our politics, it is critical that political leaders provide a practical path through the coming economic disruption. Inaction risks greater division and polarisation. That’s why we have to rise to the challenge, and harness the power of technology to deliver a better working life for all.

Yvette Cooper is a Labour MP and a former work and pensions secretary


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