The key difference between the fourth industrial revolution and all the industrial revolutions before is that job replacement will not be as one-dimensional. For the first time, both high-skilled and low-skilled jobs are at risk of being replaced at the same time. And there is real risk that, if our politics is based around a closed-minded view of the world, we will make the problem worse.
The business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) committee is right to argue in a report published today that unless the government steps up efforts to manage the transition to automation, entire regions of the UK face being left behind and British businesses could find themselves uncompetitive.
The committee argues that in lagging behind its G7 competitors in its adoption of robots, the UK has allowed other countries to steal a march and to lead the fourth industrial revolution, seizing the opportunities for economic growth and jobs.
This problem is made worse by some calling for workers to resist rather than embrace this change. We can’t resist change and we can’t ignore it either. In a globalised world where we are not simply interconnected but interdependent, technological change is inevitable. But few people would disagree that we need to manage the change so that workers are beneficiaries too.
The Commission on Workers and Technology recently heard evidence about how Amazon subjects its workforce to abhorrent working practices such as wristbands that track movements including toilet breaks. In July this year, Amazon was already reportedly confident that the company will be able to use drones to deliver packages to customers within months. It won’t be long before they are widely used throughout their business and this only scratches the surface of what’s to come.
This type of automation, whereby workers are slowly sidelined, further reduces bargaining power. That is why in order to fully protect working people from a dystopian future, trade unions and those on the left have to rethink their modus operandi. Historically, when faced with working conditions such as those in Amazon, and when working collectively, workers would have had numerous tools at their disposal to argue for and affect change. But that collective power is totally nullified by a business model in which the value workers can add is significantly reduced.
Reduced bargaining power, a smaller pool of jobs and sector replacement by ‘distributive industries’ won’t only drive down wages, but could force many more into part-time ‘gig economy’ work. We don’t yet know what the jobs of the future are, but we do know through our work with the Commission on Worker and Technology that workers are not prepared for this future. Too many people are unaware how destabilising these changes could be and thinkthat their job or their sector will be immune.
The BEIS committee has found that we have a workforce that is unworried and not upskilling, employers that are not automating and a government that is not leading. The danger is that we could end up with an uncompetitive economy, a more unequal society and a workforce that is unprepared to meet the demands of a technological employment market. We need workers, employers and government working in partnership to focus on skills, investment and training to prepare for the future. And we need the government to have the courage to meet the scale of the challenge.
There is a version of an automated future that leads to a better working life for all. Technology has the potential to lift many out of poverty pay. But if recent times have taught us anything about politics, we know this future must be fought for if it is to be realised. If we do not act, the outlook will be bleak. Compared to China and the US, the UK will be seriously uncompetitive – creating an unstable future for all. Workers and business alike need the government to step up and manage the transition to automation.
Photo credit: Christian Haugen