March 25, 2019

Automation must “deliver for ordinary people”, expert warns

By Luke Christou

Artificial intelligence has the potential to deliver huge savings for businesses, but what about the 1.5 million workers at high risk of losing their job to automation?

A recent study published by the office for National Statistics found that 7.4% of the UK workforce is at risk of losing out to automation, with young people and women particularly at risk. Some 70% of high risk jobs are currently held by women, while 25% are held by those aged in their 20s.

In some roles, such as restaurant waiters and waitresses and supermarket workers, ONS estimates that as many as 73% of all jobs could be replaced.

“This report confirms what Unite has been saying, automation is a serious threat to the jobs of many workers – women workers will be hit especially hard,” said Sharon Graham, Executive Officer for trade union Unite The Union. “We must not and will not sit back and wait for new technology to be imposed, especially when it is putting workers’ livelihoods at risk.”

Passing the rewards of automation on to workers

A recent report by McKinsey concluded that automation could generate more than $13tn in value for businesses by 2030. Yet, the same report concluded that automation is also likely to have an impact on wages, with 13% of total wage spending expected to shift away from repetitive, non-digital skills.

While employers would be cutting costs, falling wages could have an adverse impact on the economy and hit businesses in the pockets. If consumers are earning less, then consumers will have less to spend.

“Automation needs to deliver for ordinary people, not just make bigger profits for corporations,” Graham said. “New technology is going to generate a lot of wealth. We will fight to make sure this wealth is used to do things that help workers and their families,”

Cutting hours, not wages

Think tank Autonomy recently concluded that a shorter working week would provide a more sustainable and prosperous economic future. Unite agrees, and is pushing for the spoils of automation to be shared between employer and employee. The trade union feels that this is the only way to address the “new realities of the labour market”.

Graham proposes that rather than cutting staff as automation reduces the workload, employers should protect their employees by shortening the time that they spend in the office.

Those that call for a four-day week often point to the fact that workers would be less tired, less stressed and in better health, which would allow them to perform the roles that are still required of them more effectively.

“A shorter working week without loss of pay can help workers stay in work when new technology reduces the number of tasks that need to be done by people,” she said.

Read more: Artificial Intelligence in banking: Helping banks to remain competitive against digital-first players