Workplace Report March 2021


Negotiating the future of work: automation

Even in the middle of the Covid crisis, automation is emerging as the next major issue for workers. But is it a threat or an opportunity? Workplace Report looks at where unions stand on the issue

In a survey for the World Economic Forum, 94% of UK companies said they were accelerating the digitalisation of tasks as a result of Covid-19, and 57% said they were accelerating the automation of tasks.

A recent report by the Fabian Society and the Community union also found that Covid has indeed sped up the pace of job disruption and dislocation caused by automation, and that low-paid workers in the sectors most affected by social restrictions face a “double whammy” from the economic impact of the virus and increasing technological change.

It is estimated that 61% of jobs furloughed in the first half of 2020 were in sectors already at high risk of automation, and that many of the roles affected by lockdown measures are unlikely to be brought back after Covid, as consumers shift permanently towards online shopping.

And, while there may be more warehouse and logistics jobs as a result of the move online, many of them involve tasks which are themselves candidates for automation. “Postal and courier activities” and “warehousing and support activities for transportation” are both sectors which the Office for National Statistics says have a high risk of automation.

Community/Fabian Society, Sharing the Future: Workers and technology in the 2020s (

It’s not just manual jobs that are facing automation either. In the mid-to-long-term, many so-called “white collar” jobs, plus even more “human” tasks such as caring and emotional support could also be at risk. Machines with “associative memories” that can recognise and respond to facial expressions and speak and/or complete tasks based on learned patterns are already doing these jobs.

Automation is coming in waves

Digitalisation is the transference of previously analogue data such as text or images into digital data, whereas automation is the attempt to reduce human intervention in tasks. They can often go together; for example, the introduction of HR rostering software that both digitalises and automates.

• First there is the “algorithmic wave” (already well underway), involving the automation of simple computational tasks, affecting data-driven jobs and, increasingly, jobs that are managed in some way by software platforms.

• A second “augmentation wave” has started and is creating more dynamic interactions between people and technology, such as the replacement of routine tasks by robotics in warehouses, factories and even care settings.

• A predicted third “autonomous wave”, involves the complete automation of physical labour and manual dexterity, using machine learning to reactively problem-solve real-world situations, and is set to transform fields like transport and construction.

Daniel Susskind, a fellow in economics at Balliol College, and an expert on automation, says: “this pandemic has created a very strong incentive to automate the work of human beings … Machines don’t fall ill, they don’t need to isolate to protect peers, they don’t need to take time off work.”

Executive officer Sharon Graham from the Unite general union agrees: “when the public money stops and the economic recovery takes centre stage, we could see a wave of automation.”

Should we be worried?

Most of us are already seeing the impact of automation and digitalisation around us. Some of the changes have undoubtedly been positive. New technologies have transformed the way we work during the Covid pandemic, increasing the capacity for homeworking, keeping schools, universities and businesses going, and protecting jobs.

They have also reduced the amount of time spent on routine tasks, generating the potential for jobs to become more interesting, creative and human-centred. For example, Tesco automated the process of doing a stock check, freeing up workers to interact with customers.

But the impact of new technology is also reshaping work in less encouraging ways, such as increasing an employer’s capacity to monitor workers’ every move, intensifying workloads and intruding into personal lives, as well as facilitating “crowd-work” platforms that often offer sub-standard terms and conditions.

There is also the threat of jobs being entirely eliminated in the future. As the development of technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning continues, worst case scenarios predict that up to 35% of UK jobs could be lost to automation by 2035, with the impact being felt across all industrial sectors.

Furthermore, studies have shown that, due to the tendency for automation to hit lower-paid posts first, the North East and Northern Ireland are more vulnerable to losing jobs than London and the South East. Similarly, women, ethnic minorities and disabled workers could be disproportionately affected.

Automation is not all doom and gloom, however. Consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers estimate that artificial intelligence alone could add £232 billion to the UK’s economy by 2030. As ever in processes of industrial change, it will be up to unions to mitigate its impact, and ensure that workers do not lose out.

What are unions doing?

Until recently, most UK workers have had very little say about new workplace technologies. A survey by Community found that two-thirds (65%) of workers said they had not been consulted the last time a new technology had been introduced at their workplace. A recent UNISON branch survey also found that just 17% of branches had been consulted over the introduction of automation. However, there are signs that this could be changing.

The most powerful way to ensure that workers’ interests are taken into account during the introduction of technology is through strong organisation and collective bargaining. The two largest unions, UNISON and Unite, have both produced model new technology agreements which emphasise job protection, and reskilling and redeployment where necessary.

Examples of agreements already won by Unite members include Rolls-Royce Motors, where shop stewards won a new technology agreement as part of their pay negotiations. It allows them to negotiate on the introduction of all new technology and states that technology should not be used to wipe out members’ jobs.

Bus and lorry drivers have also pushed for new technology agreements. In 2019, Darren Brown, vice chair of Unite’s passenger transport committee, said: “We are building a combine of leading reps in the bus industry to campaign for a national new technology agreement to protect bus workers’ jobs from the threat of automation. I urge all reps to take this up urgently.” As firms like Ocado and Amazon pioneer automated warehousing, and companies like Mercedes demonstrate driverless lorries, stewards are also striving for new technology agreements to protect workers in the logistics sector.

Prior to the pandemic, there were also promising signs in food manufacturing, with Unite shop stewards at Nestlé attempting a new technology agreement to safeguard jobs in an industry where employers are currently talking about now being the time “to take labour out of the equation”.

Humanising new technology

In communication workers’ union the CWU’s new framework agreement with the Royal Mail Group, the union has secured ground-breaking protections for employees and CWU representatives in the area of new technology.

While the agreement recognises the need for the greater use of technology and agrees the rollout of new automated HR tools, it promises to “not allow the exploitative practices that bear down on workers (as seen in companies that operate in the wider post and logistics sector … not de-humanise the workplace and to ensure that the key decision makers in the workplace are the local manager and local representative and not the technology.”

The agreement is specific in its approach to the new HR technology, it states:

• Scan In/out data will not be used for the automatic reduction of contractual pay or allowances based on data captured, or to reduce overtime pay where a (verbal) contract has been agreed with the manager prior to commencement.

• Technology will be used to complement, inform and enhance along with all other factors, the existing resourcing processes, including manager, CWU rep and employee conversations.

• Technology will replace outdated and inconsistent manual methods of information gathering and provide the underlying insight to improve current processes including resourcing.

• All data will be used in compliance with Royal Mail policies and general data protection regulation (GDPR) obligations.

At the local level, the CWU has recently followed these agreed principles and won a shorter working week for workers on the back of the introduction of new technology.

Thanks to an agreement negotiated with local management by the CWU, postal workers at South Midlands Mail Centre (SMMC) will now have the opportunity to apply for new four-day a week duties. The agreement replaces the shift patterns allocated by new rostering technology and involves redeployment of some jobs to work with a new machine that automates parcel sorting.

Area processing rep Paul Bosworth said that the new package will “create 150 new job roles, which will be advertised internally and will be allocated proportionally among early, late and night shifts. This will enable people on the new patterns to have either Fridays, Saturdays or Mondays off work, improving their work-life balance and giving them more time with their families.”

Shifts at the Northampton site will change from an eight-hour to a nine and a half-hour duty, with the extra time worked being “split” between the start and end of each shift.

Of the total 150 opportunities – all of which are full-time roles – 33 will be specifically focussed on SMMC’s newly installed automated parcel sort machine and will make this unit better equipped to deal with the large increases in volumes.

“While the company has become ever-more seduced by computer-based resourcing programs, the CWU has long maintained that optimum resourcing solutions recognise both the aspirations of our members and the experience of our representatives, who know the operation and the people working in it”, said Bosworth.

“No computer models can replace that level of experience and understanding. Resourcing in our mail centres, each of which is entirely different in regard to workload and layout, must always recognise the local factors in reaching a mutual-interest outcome”, he added.

Speaking out

Technology has been increasingly on every union’s agenda, whether it is speaking out against the introduction of intrusive tracking technology, as the GMB has done recently for Churchill security guards, or the National Union of Journalists stopping the Daily Telegraph from using heat and motion sensor devices to monitor the time journalists spend at their desks.

In education, the recent move to blended learning in schools, colleges and universities has got unions such as the UCU, NASUWT and NEU concerned about the impact of the new technologies on staff’s workload, wellbeing and right to privacy. The unions are pushing their local branches to get employers to agree to full risk assessments, adequate training and support, no intensification of workload and that no staff member is recorded or observed without their consent. With recorded sessions particularly, there are issues around data protection and intellectual property rights.

In the financial services sector, reps are in discussions with employers such as Nationwide and Aviva about how to mitigate the rapid automation occurring in that sector. Their aim is to minimise job losses and redeploy staff from branch closures etc, and contribute a workers’ voice to the vision of what the future of work will look like in those companies.

At insurance firm Zurich, robotics have automated around 117 processes across its UK business, equivalent to 55 employees working 24-hours a day, seven-days a week. This has freed employees to focus on other tasks, and concentrate on upskilling while delivering better service to customers. In dialogue with Community, the company has thought extensively about the future skills needs of its workforce and invested in training opportunities and a “data academy” to allow existing staff to take advantage of new career paths.

Good industrial relations can also create positive feedback loops after the implementation of new technology. In Wheatley Group, UNISON members who are housing officers can feed back on problems with newly introduced caseload software, and even suggest further processes they would like to see automated through the union-employer consultative committee.

Campaigning for new technology employment rights

Unions are also lobbying for what they describe as “a new modernised suite of employment rights” which can keep pace with technological change as well as improve workers’ lives.

1. Shorter working hours

In 2019, the TUC launched its campaign for a shorter working week, demanding that workers get to take advantage of the increasing productivity that new technology brings. There are already signs of this becoming a reality, with the CWU pushing Royal Mail to reduce the working week from 39 to 35-hours a week by 2022, with no loss of pay.

Sharon Graham states that it’s also one of Unite’s core political aims: “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. We need a radical response to the new realities of the labour market. The gains from technology should be used to change the lives of working people including better retirements and shorter working time.”

2. The right to be consulted

Usdaw is campaigning for a new legal right to collective consultation on the introduction of new technology into workplaces. This would provide the opportunity for negotiators to protect jobs, and look at alternatives like redeployment, upskilling and training.

3. Protection against surveillance

Specialists’ union Prospect has been doing work around the dangers to workers of new and more intrusive forms of surveillance software. Polling by the union found that workers are still largely unaware that this technology exists in the first place, and that employers are able to monitor their work rate via “work-sharing platforms” and other tools. For example, only around a third of workers had heard of keystroke monitoring, which logs every action a worker takes on their computer. However, the poll also revealed that the overwhelming majority would not be comfortable being monitored in this way.

The union has called for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the UK’s data regulator, to update its employment practices code to make sure that workers are informed and involved when our data is being used to manage us. GDPR rules make it clear we should be consulted, but this does not always happen.

4. The right to disconnect

Prospect is also lobbying as a union for a “right to disconnect” law in the upcoming employment bill, as well as providing a template collective agreement on the issue drafted by the Irish Financial Services Union which can be found here:

They warn that “always-on” working cultures, and inexpertly managed home-working, can raise a range of issues for workers, such as:

• hidden overtime;

• work intensity;

• mental health and wellbeing issues;

• injuries to muscles, joints and bones, known as musculoskeletal disorders;

• equality impacts and discrimination against women and people with disabilities;

• growth in monitoring and surveillance technology; and

• remote and digital bullying.

A similar law was recently passed in France after a union campaign. Now French workers have the “right to switch off”, and companies with more than 50 employees have to negotiate the use of digital technologies to ensure respect for workers’ rest, holiday periods and personal lives.

5. The right for workers to control their data

According to Prospect: “The battle for employee data and privacy is the new battleground of workers’ rights”. As well as arguing that reps and officers should develop a “strong practical and personal knowledge base in the use, advantages and dangers of data management and algorithms”, the union believes workers should be given control over their own data so that they can use it in their own interests.

For example, productivity data from employer software could be used as evidence for pay increases or reductions in working time and strengthen collective bargaining.

Prospect has also developed a beta version of the WeClock app that enables workers to collect, own and control their own data, and build their own data profiles. For example, data gathered on commute time and work completed on digital devices out of office hours could inform a campaign to reduce unpaid overtime. Unions could also consider if, as part of their pay negotiations, employers could commercialise any data generated by the workforce.

The Unite model agreement

• The introduction and control of New Technology on the shop floor will only be made with agreement of the Employer and the Union on behalf of its affected members.

• The Employer will reinvest cost savings from any introduction of New Technology into areas that promote and provide more and better jobs within the organisation.

• New skills or responsibilities will be recognised through negotiated pay increases.

To this end, New Technology will only be introduced if:

• The overall number of jobs are protected.

• It does not benefit one group of workers at the expense of another.

• Workers are ensured proper training – this should be arranged by the employer and apprentices should also be trained on the latest technology.

• Workers are compensated for new skills.

• It doesn’t include monitoring and/or surveillance functions without agreement – it asks for full transparency around ‘legitimate’ data collection, especially on individual workers.

• There are clear and fair rules on any personal use – for example, rules for private use of iPad or phones

• There are no negative health and safety issues – there is mention of New Technology Reps who could take specific responsibility for this area and be granted the facility time to do so.

• It will be introduced in a fair and equal manner.

It is further agreed that wherever relevant New Technology will be used to:

• Reduce working time, not pay; and

• Create new jobs.

The UNISON model agreement

Unison’s model agreement recognises that new technology offers opportunities to reduce repetitive tasks and for workers to retrain in more fulfilling work. However, it emphasises the disproportionate impact that new technology is likely to have on groups with “protected characteristics”. It requires that a full consultation process and risk assessment are carried out prior to its implementation.

While it offers a full template for an agreement, UNISON also advises that automation clauses be added to already existing organisational change policies where appropriate.

The main agreement provides for protections to the existing workforce around pay (workers should not take a cut to salaries), job restructuring, redeployment and redundancies, as well as against work intensification.

The proposed consultation procedure with employers should enable the union to develop a thorough understanding of:

• The rationale for change;

• The cost impact and a breakdown of those costs;

• The consequences for customer service and evidence of how these align with customer preferences;

• The consequences for the working arrangements of the staff directly affected;

• The consequences for integrated working across the organisation;

• An assessment of the equality impact.