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The fourth industrial revolution can benefit everyone, but only if unions are involved

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Next week, trade unions will gather in Brighton for the annual TUC Congress, to discuss issues of importance to people at work. One central concern facing working people is how to meet the challenges of the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’.
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New digital technologies – artificial intelligence, big data and the internet of things – are set to change the way we live, including the way we work. New technologies could bring massive benefits, in areas as varied as medical diagnostics and the fight against climate change. But with the digital revolution comes a degree of fear, with many people asking the simple question: is a robot about to take my job?

Britain has the potential to be a digital world leader

Trade unions will engage with this issue head on. Earlier this week, the TUC published a major new report, Shaping our Digital Future. We argue that Britain has the potential to become a digital world leader, using new technology to deliver growth and jobs. But that must be accompanied by a mission to ensure that the benefits of digitalisation are fairly shared across the workforce and society.

The most famous study looking at the impact of digital technologies on work, conducted by Frey and Osborne in 2013, predicted that 47% of US jobs are at high risk of automation over the next couple of decades. A Bank of England analysis of Frey and Osborne’s data suggested that, for the UK, this could amount to 15 million jobs.

Fears of widespread technological unemployment are nothing new. Past experience has shown that such fears are unfounded, with technological breakthroughs creating more jobs than they displace. The sting in the tail, however, is that these new jobs are different jobs, requiring different skills. A key challenge for government, employers and unions is to ensure that today’s workers and tomorrow’s workers have the skills to survive and thrive in the digital world.

What should be done?

So how should the UK respond to the digital revolution? First, we must plan this future. The TUC suggests a ‘mission’ for the UK to become a top five digital economy by 2030. Frey and Osborne suggest the digital transformation will take perhaps 20 years, so we have time to act, but not time to waste. The UK’s digital mission should be set out in the forthcoming White Paper on Industrial Strategy to be published by the government in the autumn.

Second, that mission must be developed in partnership with employers, workers and other interested parties. Evidence from Germany, presented in ‘Shaping our Digital Future’, shows that there is much less fear of digitalisation where workers and their unions are engaged in its introduction. A White Paper on work, to coincide with moves towards digitalisation, involved companies, unions, churches and others in Germany developing a response.

The DGB, the TUC’s sister union confederation, along with the German metalworkers union, IG Metall, have shaped the workforce perspective. The Works Council at Airbus has used its influence to protect jobs, skills and wages through a time of anxiety for many in the workforce. The UK needs its own White Paper on work, so that digitalisation can be approached as a workforce issue as well as a technological one.

Third, unions must have a central role in the development of skills policy. Generic, cognitive and problem-solving skills will be vital in allowing workers to benefit from our digital future. The UK must set an ambition to increase investment in both workforce and out of work training to the EU average within the next five years. We need a targeted retraining programme aimed at those facing redundancy due to industrial change. We also need a more diverse tech workforce; the TUC suggests a target to double the proportion of female science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates over ten years.

Fourth, we need to share the rewards of increasing productivity with the workforce. For most of the 200 or so years since the industrial revolution, workers enjoyed the fruits of productivity increases. However, this trend came to a halt in the 1970s, coinciding with the neo-liberal economic revolution and the curtailing of trade union influence on both sides of the Atlantic. At a time when trust in our political leaders and our institutions to deliver fair economic change is so low, ensuring that the rewards of digitalisation are shared is a priority. That means promoting collective bargaining to tackle wage inequality, viewing unions as partners in the endeavour to deliver fair growth, not enemies to be attacked.  

Fifth, and finally, some argue that ‘this time it is different’, that digitalisation will signal an end to an economy based on work. The logical conclusion of this view is that, with a new economic model simply incapable of creating the jobs that society needs, radical solutions such as a universal basic income should be embraced.

This could be a chance to create better jobs

The TUC is sceptical of this approach. In our view, it is the responsibility of both government economic policy and positive employers, working with engaged unions, to create good, meaningful work. A good job is not just about the money, it is about a connection with society and the wider world.

But we do believe that digital technology could be used to address our long hours culture and our long (and lengthening) working lives. One of the benefits of digital technologies is that they could reduce or eliminate many dangerous forms of work, but long hours contribute to stress, anxiety and depression, as well as poor decision-making, and digitalisation may provide an opportunity to reduce our working time.

Meanwhile, if technology could provide a ten per cent boost in GDP by 2030, as reported in ‘Shaping our Digital Future’, this raises the question of whether we can meet the costs of our ageing population by other means that an ever-higher retirement age.

These are complex themes and much more debate is necessary. However, as we have seen with recent political upheavals, too many in our society no longer believe that globalisation and free trade is working for them. Digitalisation has the potential to divide our society still further. Or it can be introduced as part of a wider agenda of good work and a fairer economy. The choice is ours.

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