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Workers and Technology: Carolyn Fairbairn and Frances O’Grady in conversation

The Fabian Society and Community union's Commission on Workers and Technology hosted this in-conversation event.



On Wednesday 17th July, the Commission on Workers and Technology – a two-year research project established by the Fabian Society and Community trade union – hosted a fascinating in-conversation event with speakers Carolyn Fairbairn (director general, CBI) and Frances O’Grady (general secretary, TUC). The discussion was chaired by Yvette Cooper MP, who also chairs the Commission.

Carolyn Fairbairn and Frances O’Grady set out their thoughts on technology change and the future of work before taking a range of thought-provoking questions from Yvette Cooper and members of the audience. We’ve picked out six key points from the discussion. You can also watch our footage of the event below.

  1. Technology change has the potential to be hugely beneficial for workers. Carolyn Fairbairn and Frances O’Grady both shared the view that automating technologies is essential for boosting productivity – and that we have too few robots in the UK rather than too many. Carolyn made the point that businesses need to continue to increase the rate of technology adoption, since there exists a ‘long tail’ of firms in the UK that are a long way behind. And Frances noted that new technology can provide “positive opportunities for groups who have previously found it really hard to get into the labour market”. This sense of positivity is borne out in the Commission’s emerging findings: our survey, conducted by YouGov, found that 57 per cent of workers who had been impacted by technology at work in recent years felt that the impact had been positive.
  2. It’s important for the success of businesses that technology change works for workers. Carolyn Fairbairn was unequivocal in her claim that, unless we make technology work for people, it will not work for business either. There are examples of employers carrying out technology adoption in the right way, and examples of employers who are not. One strategy for changing the behaviour of the latter is by making the business case to them – in Carolyn’s words, “your business is far more successful if you have engaged your people in how you make change happen, and you bring them onside”.
  3. Workers need to get a say in the process of workplace technology change. Whilst Carolyn Fairbairn called it ‘employee engagement’ and Frances O’Grady preferred the term ‘worker voice’, this was another area of firm agreement between the two speakers. Carolyn noted that we are far behind countries like the Netherlands when it comes to the quality of employee consultation – although there are good examples in the UK, and we should talk more about best practice. Frances made the critical point that “people will resist change if they feel they don’t have any stake in it”.
  4. Our education and training systems need radical reform. Both speakers agreed that the UK is not getting education right. Carolyn Fairbairn touted the idea of scrapping either GCSEs or A-levels, clearing time for teachers to bring creative skills into the curriculum. Frances O’Grady pointed out that further education “has been the biggest loser from austerity of all our public services”, which is a huge injustice given that it is crucial for enabling people from working-class backgrounds to accrue skills. Carolyn asserted that, while the National Retraining Partnership is a positive start, it is necessary to think more imaginatively and on a larger scale if we want to provide security to all those whose jobs are vulnerable to displacement.
  5. There must be a just distribution of the rewards of technology change. Frances O’Grady was unambiguous that unions ‘want fair shares’ for their members. She emphasised the importance of having a debate about how we best distribute the benefits of increased productivity brought about by automation and AI. Carolyn Fairbairn echoed these sentiments, demonstrating that there exists a surprising degree of consensus between business and labour: “Can this all be returns to shareholders from AI? It absolutely fundamentally cannot be. This has to be a fair distribution”.
  6. New regulation is needed. Frances O’Grady made the case that there are serious issues around emerging models of capitalism, whereby multinational technology firms not only collect and monetise masses of our data, but use it to influence and shape consumers’ – and workers’ – behaviour. Frances also argued that society needs to give more thought to the design of the technology itself, and the purposes it is being designed for; she cited surveys of AI engineers suggesting that they worry about whether their work ‘is for good or for harm’. Carolyn Fairbairn agreed on the need for a new ethical framework and stressed that the state must play a part here: “It’s absolutely right that we need new regulation. We’re going to have to have new regulation and new imaginings of the role of the state”.

Find out more about the Commission here.

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