Trade unions say adjustment to new technologies ‘will not be automatic’ and call for more workplace control of automation

April 16th 2018

STUC Press Release 

Monday 16th April 2018

Trade unions say adjustment to new technologies ‘will not be automatic’ and call for more workplace control of automation

Trade unions have welcomed a new report by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Trades Union Congress that acknowledges more must be done to address the causes and consequences of automation. They have called for more workplace control of new technologies to avoid the potentially severe impact of automation, and ensure that safety, skills-development, and workplace security are guaranteed when new systems are introduced.

The report argues there while there is ‘nothing remarkable’ about the replacement of workers by new technologies, the consequences for affected workers have been ‘at times severe’. It also points to the ways that new technologies are ‘transforming – for good and bad – the way the workplace is experienced’.

The report, published on the day of Nicola Sturgeon’s address to STUC Congress in Aviemore, puts these changes in the context of the growing prevalence of zero-hour contracts and, especially, rising bogus self-employment leading to lower job quality and increase economic insecurity.

It highlights how apps used by companies like Uber and Deliveroo in the ‘gig economy’ are leading to ‘over-reliance on forms of self-employment’ that deny workers holidays, guaranteed hours, and other benefits.

It also presents new evidence of the way that technologies such as AI scheduling and new data-inputting systems are being imposed in sectors including retail, call centres, and public services, leading to increased stress and workloads and lowering the quality of services.

Unions will debate automation at their Congress this week. A number of motions insist that while automation can bring benefits to workers and companies, adjustment to new technologies will not be automatic, and will work best where workers have more control over technology.

A motion from the Union of Shop, Distribution, and Allied Workers will raise the concern amongst many workers in Scotland about the ‘rapid development of technology’ being ‘imposed upon them’, reducing the human interaction that are vital parts of retail work. It calls for training to address the ‘digital skills gap in Scotland’, warning that it ‘should not be assumed that the skills shortage applies only to jobs or careers within the digital sector’ and calls for ‘a focus on developing digital skills through trade union learning’.

Pauline Rourke, Assistant Secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), who represents call centre workers affected by changing technology, said:

‘Union representatives are at the forefront of identifying issues presented by automation in call centres and communication. We are also best placed to understand the skills gaps that are caused by new technologies, which can only be addressed through expanded training and union learning, and more consultation and control over changes to the workplace.

‘In many call centres, manual handling is being reduced with automation, restricting specialised skills and input, while automated scripts limit any personal input and decision-making which can result in complacency and lead to compliance and regulatory failures.

‘The lack of human interface is one of our biggest concerns. The erosion of flexibility and personal judgement is also reducing the quality and variety of roles in the sector, while technology is being deployed to produce a vast array of statistics in call centre which are used to justify more and more micro-management.’

Mark Dickinson, Director of the maritime union Nautilus, said there were good examples of drones that helped seafarers monitor enclosed spaces in vessels, which increased security and safety. Dickinson said:

‘Properly introduced, automation and digital technologies could transform shipping in a positive way – eliminating some dirty and dangerous tasks, cutting paperwork and bureaucracy, and generating significant productivity gains. Managed poorly, however, it could undermine safety and erode the essential base of maritime skills, knowledge and expertise.’

Grahame Smith, STUC General Secretary, said: 

‘Automation represents a major challenge to how work is organised, but it is still unclear how it will affect the quality and type of work in the long term. Predictions swing between utopian visions of emancipation through technology, to dystopian views of sever inequality.

‘The STUC and the Scottish Government report cuts through this debate to recognise both the positive and negative impacts of automation. It found examples where new technologies lead to job losses, such as the closure of bank branches due to increased internet banking; and examples where it can improve safety and security, like the digitised records in the health service.

‘In all cases, workers must be involved in how automation is introduced, shaping or controlling their own workplaces through collective trade union involvement. Otherwise we are likely to see automation pursued as a cost-cutting, profit-driven measure, implemented without proper training or controls, or used to abuse staff with inappropriate targets or high levels of surveillance. These are the sorts of consequences we will be debating at Congress, which the union movement is working to avoid.'

ENDS

For more information please contact Helen Martin, STUC Assistant Secretary, on 07583 030741

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