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A future that works for working people

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Voice control

Technology is often held out as offering us greater control. From an app to control your sleep to ‘smart fridges’ that offer to take care of your shopping, we’re increasingly told that we will be able to make greater choices about how to manage every aspect of our lives.

This should be true within the workplace too. Improved communications software offers greater choice over where work is done, and there’s a proliferation of new apps to enable workers to more easily swap shifts or communicate at work.

But for too many workers, technological developments threaten to put more power in the hands of the boss. We found that over half of workers say they are being monitored at work, including through new software such as keystroke monitoring, and two-thirds worry that this data could be used in discriminatory ways.

The lack of a voice in how technology is used at work extends beyond individual workplaces too. For many workers, industrial change has been managed in ways that have ignored their needs. The decline of collective bargaining, hastened by political attacks, has left many workers seeing change imposed on them, rather than shaped by them.

That’s not only bad for workers, it’s a missed opportunity. We know that we can best realise the potential for technology to improve work when workers have the chance to have a say on how it’s used. Trade unions are best placed to deliver the skills uplift that can help deal with industrial transitions. And collective bargaining is the best way to ensure that the costs and benefits of change are fairly shared.

Routers not robots?

For most people, software to speed up office tasks and communication has been the main way that technological progress has affected their work in the past ten years.

Chart 13: Many new forms of technology are already in use in the workplace
Chart 13: Many new forms of technology are already in use in the workplace

Source: GQR polling for TUC. Workers were asked: Which of the following types of technology are used at your workplace? Please check all that apply.

For many, these changes will have made work better. Some 37 per cent of people say that changes in the past ten years have increased the speed of communications, and 36 per cent say that they’ve enabled better use of data and analysis. Improved technology in the future could have the potential to further improve efficiency. It could also reduce the number of repetitive and mundane jobs; 62 per cent of people believe that this could happen, and over 40 per cent say that work could become more enjoyable in the future.

Technological fixes can also be used to help give people more autonomy at work. For example, Gap in the US introduced shift-swapping software that enabled employees to swap shifts between themselves as part of a wider experiment in shifting to more stable scheduling for workers across their stores.[en value=40]Joan C. Williams Susan Lambert and Saravanan Kesavan (2017) ‘How The Gap Used an App to Give Workers More Control Over Their Schedules’ Harvard Business Review at
https://hbr.org/2017/12/how-the-gap-used-an-app-to-give-workers-more-co… And unions themselves are experimenting with new forms of digital organising – including the TUC’s own young workers programme.

But there’s a clear danger that without intervention, technology will be used more as a tool to control workers than to empower them. In separate research conducted over summer 2018, we found that over half of workers believed that they were subject to some form of monitoring at work. The most common forms of monitoring were:

  • Email monitoring (49 per cent of workers believed they experienced it)
  • CCTV (45 per cent)
  • Call logging (42 per cent)

But more advanced forms of technological surveillance were becoming more common too. In this research, asking a wider question than the polling reported above, one-in-four (24 per cent) said that location tracking devices, including wearable devices, were used in their workplace. One-in-seven (15 per cent) believed their employer was using facial recognition software.

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Chart 14: Many forms of workplace monitoring are already commonplace
Chart 14: Many forms of workplace monitoring are already commonplace

Source: TUC (2018) I’ll be watching you: a report on workplace monitoring

Seven in ten workers (70 per cent) believed surveillance will become more common in the future. And two-thirds of workers (66 per cent) believed that unless carefully regulated, surveillance could be used as a tool to discriminate against workers. Workers felt they had little power over the use of monitoring at work. Just 38 per cent said that they would be able to challenge workplace monitoring if they felt uncomfortable with it.

From the workplace to the wider economy

Employees’ lack of confidence about their ability to tackle the unfair use of technology at work reflects a wider decline in workers’ power over the last thirty years. Union coverage in the UK has declined significantly from its peak in the 1970s. In 1979 union density was 54 per cent 41 and collective bargaining coverage was over 70 per cent.42 In 2016 (the most recent figures), they were 23.5 per cent and 26.3 per cent respectively.43.This is a particular problem in the private sector, in which collective bargaining coverage is now just 15 per cent, and union density 13 per cent.

41 http://www.unionhistory.info/britainatwork/narrativedisplay.php?type=tr…
42 This is approximate - analysis of the Workplace Industrial Relations Survey (WIRS) suggests that collective bargaining coverage in 1984 was 70%, and it is likely to have been higher in the late 70s. Source for 1984 figure available here http://www.niesr.ac.uk/sites/default/files/publications/210808_110817.p…

At the same time, the scope of the bargaining agenda has narrowed. In 1990, the Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) found that aspects of managerial relations such as staffing levels and redeployment were subject to negotiation in over half of workplaces recognising unions. By 1998, this was the case in only around ten per cent of workplaces recognising unions. The 2011 WERS notes a ‘significant diminution in the scope of negotiations’ since 2004, with pay remaining the only issue covered in a majority of collective agreements.44

A wide range of factors lie behind this decline. Attacks on trade union rights by the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 2015 have played a significant part. De-industrialisation and sectoral changes (including the shift to a more service-based economy, privatisation, and the fragmentation of employment relationships) have also made it harder for unions to organise.

But the result has been that workers have had far less say in shaping the world of work, as well as the industrial transitions that we have already experienced. As we set out above, this has left workers missing out on the benefits of change, with a decline in the labour share, and falls in wages for those most affected by industrial shifts.
Recent research from the OECD laid bare the costs of industrial change for workers, showing that in some countries ‘displaced’ workers can see their wages fall by 50 per cent in the year they lose their job, and remain up to ten per cent lower even four years after the job loss. As they point out,

income losses can continue after displaced workers are re-employed, because wages in post-displacement jobs are often lower than those from the lost jobs. The risks of long-term joblessness and large earnings losses after re-employment are particularly significant for older and long-tenure workers in blue-collar jobs.45

The decline in workers’ power hasn’t just affected those in declining industries; workers have suffered across the whole economy. Without action to ensure that the jobs that replaced heavy industry were secure and well-paid, we have seen the growth of new and innovative ways for employers to push risk onto workers. There are now just under 800,000 people on zero-hour contracts, millions of self-employed people who earn less than the national living wage, and around half a million people in insecure jobs who earn too little to qualify for sick pay. It’s perhaps unsurprising that many people feel like they’ve lost control rather than gained it.

Trade Unions delivering change

We know that unions are a critical means of ensuring that new technology is used in ways that benefit workers, both at workplace level and across the economy.

Where unions are strong, they have been able to negotiate the use of surveillance technology in ways that enable employers to boost productivity, and workers to maintain dignity and privacy at work. For example, CWU’s agreement with the Royal Mail on the use of data states:

Both parties recognise that new technology will improve Royal Mail’s performance, and the service we provide to our customers. It is agreed that all individuals have a right to privacy at work, and it is accepted that there is a mutual obligation of confidence and trust applied to every contract of employment, and that all parties should act in a way so as not to break that relationship.

The use of data will be in the spirit of our agreements. It is recognised that the use of technology may increase levels of individual visibility and it is agreed that this new technology is not being deployed for, or will be used as, a disciplinary tool. As such it will not enhance the ability of managers, or the evidence available, to take disciplinary action.

In the transport sector, Unite has secured agreement with employers that increased electronic surveillance of drivers cannot be used in disciplinary hearings, and can only be viewed by key managers.

And unions are piloting the use of ‘new technology agreements’ whereby any new technology can only be introduced with worker consent. Unite’s draft technology agreement states, for example:

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… It is further agreed that wherever relevant new technology will be used to: reduce working time, not pay; and create new jobs.46

Unions in Germany have achieved similar goals, with an agreement at Airbus that will see protections for the overall level of jobs, while accepting that job roles will change.47
But a greater say in the delivery of new technology isn’t only good for workers. Research is increasingly showing that workers who have a say in the workplace, including in how new technology is introduced, are more likely to use it to deliver the productivity gains that have been so elusive in the UK. The recently published ‘skills and employment’ survey for 2017, for example, found that one-in-five workers had identified changes to their working practices that would make them ‘a great deal more productive’. These channels were most likely to be put in place where ‘their views and those of their colleagues were heard’, but the proportion of workplaces enabling workers to have a say has fallen over the decade.48

Similarly, a recent survey of nearly 7,500 workers found that 87 per cent agreed with the statement ‘I am keen to embrace technology and maximise its benefits’, and 73 per cent agreed that technology would improve productivity. However, less than one-in-four (24 per cent) said that their employer gave them a say in how technology affects their work.49 In our recent polling, only one-in-seven workers said that real change happened as a result of staff suggestions. And over a third (36 per cent) said that big changes at work happen with no consultation at all.

Trade unions have also shown they can play a vital role in helping workers manage the industrial shifts of the type that are likely if robotics and AI realise their potential in the next few years. Swedish Job Security Councils, delivered through collective agreements between employers and workers across a sector, have one of the best records in advanced economies of getting displaced workers back into jobs, with a 90 per cent success rate within a year. In the Netherlands, collective agreements agree financing for ‘O&O’ funds, which provide learning opportunities to workers to help them find new jobs in the future.50

And in the UK, the government has recognised the role of unions in delivering learning, with a commitment to pilot a National Retraining Partnership delivered in partnership between the government, the TUC and the CBI. This builds on the long-term success in the UK of Union Learning in boosting workers’ skills. Four-in-ten (80 per cent) of those who’ve undertaken union learning develop skills that they can transfer to a new job, and 62 per cent believe that their new skills make them more effective at their current role.51

We know that trade unions offer the best way to ensure that the future of work gives workers more control. In the next section, we set out what needs to change to make sure that happens.