Negotiating the Future of Work: Automation and New Technology

Report by Labour Research Department
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date

This is one of two reports highlighting the importance of supporting workers to access new skills and, crucially, embedding good practice by negotiating with employers across the key sectors we know are most impacted. It is aimed at our workplace reps. It is for you to use to start these conversations with your employers and colleagues to realise the ambition of a just transition in Wales and address the big changes facing workers today.

Executive Summary

Automation is the process by which machines replace tasks previously done by humans. It has been a relatively a constant feature of work as technology has developed over the centuries. However, the current wave, which includes advanced digitalisation, artificial intelligence, semiautonomous interconnected machines, advanced robotics, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, and advanced biotechnology, are having such a transformative effect that they have collectively been described as a "fourth industrial revolution" or Industry 4.0.

New technology is already reshaping work in positive and negative ways

New technologies are being used to redesign occupations and change the content, character and context of jobs. This has implications for the ‘quality’ of work, how it is valued, how intense it is, the skills and tools required to do it, how safe it is for workers and the relative power it affords to employers versus workers.

A positive experience can be the introduction of labour saving technology which frees workers from demanding manual labour and lets them engage in more meaningful tasks. An example of a negative outcome comes from Barclays bank where a new computer monitoring system tracked the time employees spent at their desks, and registered how long users were offline.

It is an issue for all workers

The changing nature of job roles due to technology will impact all workers regardless of skill level. Automation, digitisation and AI will have an impact on both ‘routine’ and ‘high-skilled’ jobs. e.g. Increases in processing power, new software and the use of ‘big data’ is already having an impact on so-called professional occupations such as accountants, lawyers, doctors and teachers.

The pace of change is accelerating

Over the next decade, these new technologies are predicted to develop further and become more integrated into economies around the world. Although the exact nature and pace of technological change is hard to predict, and will vary across different sectors of the economy, the Covid 19 pandemic is accelerating the process. In a survey for the World Economic Forum, “94 per cent of UK companies said they were accelerating the digitalisation of tasks as a result of Covid-19, and 57 per cent said they were accelerating the automation of tasks”.

New technology is both a risk and an opportunity for Welsh workers

It is as yet uncertain what the impact of new technology will mean for numbers of jobs in Wales, and whether new jobs will be created, but what is clear is that it’s an urgent issue and the time to act is now.

Up to a third of Welsh jobs could be lost and many others displaced

Think tank, Future Advocacy, found that automation could have a devastating impact on Wales with around a third of jobs at risk of disappearing altogether by the 2030s. It forecast that, by sector, 46.4% of jobs in manufacturing, 32.3% in finance and 44% in wholesale and retail could be lost in little over a decade. Less affected will be human health and social work (17%) and education (8.5%). The study also found Wales' top 10 private employers were in sectors where jobs are at a high risk of being lost to automation and that Alyn and Deeside was the most vulnerable constituency in Wales and the fourth in the whole of UK.

The Wales 4.0 report aimed to take a more nuanced view of what new technology means for the country. It agrees that there may well be a high risk to jobs, but that it depends on the sector. In the private sector “the Welsh economy is dominated by businesses that are locked into peripheral parts of global value chains with their headquarters, research, design and business intelligence function located elsewhere. This means that functions located in Wales tend to be less secure, more portable and hence more at risk of automation.”

On the other hand, the relatively high proportion of the Welsh workforce (compared to the rest of the UK) in public services, may offer some degree of shelter from the threat of automation at least in the short term. 

There’s no guarantee that significant new jobs will be created

The Wales 4.0 report challenges the optimism of some who say that new technology will create a net gain in jobs. It says there are no guarantees that new, as yet, unknown jobs will be automatically created by new technology. The evidence does not easily show potential new areas of mass employment, and in fact points to most new employment in Wales being ‘replacement jobs’ in the short-to-medium term as well as to a worrying trend towards more low quality, non-standard forms of employment.

An opportunity to transform the Welsh economy

The Wales 4.0 report sets out a range of policy recommendations that could ensure new technology is both beneficial to the Welsh Economy and workers.  The aim is to support the creation of Wales as a global hub of digital innovation.

“The question now is whether Welsh Government and its key social partners are prepared to ‘will the means’ as well as ‘will the ends’ to make digital innovation and the future economy truly work for the people of Wales.” (Wales 4.0)

What unions can do

It’s clear if the introduction of new technology is left to be driven solely driven by the ‘logic of the market’ ,it will be used primarily by employers to make ‘efficiencies’, drive down labour costs, and reduce standards. Unions can act now to:

  • Push for Wales 4.0 recommendations to be adopted,
  • use social partnership seats to influence strategic policy on new technology
  • Organise at workplace and employer level to negotiate agreements on new technology that both protect and benefit workers

Existing agreements are few but show what can be won

New technology has been increasingly on every UK union’s agenda, although it seems that, as yet, there is little actual collective bargaining taking place specifically on the issue in the UK. Exceptions include the CWU’s agreements with the Royal Mail Group, and the progress towards agreements being sought by Unite reps across a number of sectors, after the union’s push to get workers campaigning on the issue (see example below).

Outside of the UK, there are more examples of unions negotiating around new technology – a main example being the German transport union EVG’s Work 4.0  agreement it reached with the Deutsche-Bahn Group (DB AG). However, collective agreements are still few and far between. This is because it is still an evolving issue, on top of which unions have been busy dealing with the fallout from the pandemic. 

Starting a conversation with members

Automation can be a strong mobilising issue that draws on members’ concerns about job security, the changing nature of job roles and heightened pressures on the workforce. However, it is hard to start campaigning around automation without knowing what is happening in the workplace already, understanding members’ feelings about the issue, and having at least some idea of the likely impact on jobs and specific job roles in the future. 

The unions that have successfully negotiated new technology agreements have either carried out extensive research, reflective exercises and a consultation with members or have existing bargaining apparatus in place that ensures that the union is consulted on any planned changes long before their implementation.

Securing worker’s voice

The core aim of negotiating around automation is that the introduction of new technology should not be made unilaterally by employers but by mutual agreement. 

At the strategic level, workers’ concerns around new technology must be addressed with social partners in terms of its impact on whole sectors of the economy, regions and skills needs. There is already progress towards an agreement on digitalisation in the Workforce Partnership Council (WPC) covering the public sector. However, progress on issues has been slower in the Council for Economic Development structure set up for partnership working in the private sector.

At the workplace and employer level, new technology is such a potentially huge issue affecting workers that it warrants its own space for discussion apart from any existing joint negotiating or consultation committees. Unions that have agreements on new technology have set up new Joint Working Groups on technology and others are consulted via their partnership structures.

Setting standards around the quality of work

There is plenty of experience to show that digital innovation does not automatically guarantee a decent standard of work. A collective agreement should make sure that, as technology transforms all types of occupations; it is not used as an excuse to devalue or deskill jobs or in any way demean workers and instead promotes Fair Work.

Redeployment and reskilling

The reskilling and retraining needs of workers in a transforming economy are likely to be significant.. Ideally, it is an issue that should be addressed through social partnership; with employers, unions and policy-makers working together to support job redesign and training initiatives, and in the process identifying in good time where new technology and processes may lead to job losses or a need for retraining. One way to start a conversation on future skills needs in wales is through the Wales union learning fund.

Better terms and conditions

There are predictions that industry 4.0 will generate significant financial and productivity gains for the UK. PWC estimates that artificial intelligence alone could add £232 billion to the economy by 2030. It is also estimated that smarter manufacturing, employing robotics, artificial intelligence, industrial internet of things and additive manufacturing, could add a further £455 billion. Whilst there are no guarantees that new technology will automatically lead to productivity gains in Wales, an agreement could ensure that any future gains are fairly distributed.

Health and safety

Depending on the workplace and the type of new technology concerned, there are likely to be a number of health and safety issues to include in any agreement. These include: 

  • Ergonomics – is new machinery safe, body movements etc.?
  • Mental health
  • Work intensification
  • Social isolation

Unions are also lobbying for a ‘Right to Disconnect’ law as well as providing model agreements on the issue.

Protecting worker data

One of the main concerns around new technology is that data on workers is being unfairly captured and leading to the increased monitoring and surveillance by employers. Recent research has found that an increasing number of workers are having their every movement at work tracked, many without even being aware that this is happening. There are a number of ways unions can intervene to protect workers.

Remote working

Many reps and officials are currently in the process of negotiating new policies and agreements around homeworking as a result of big shifts caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. Some of these negotiations also achieve positive outcomes for workers in relation to the use of technology.

Negotiating the future: The takeaways

  • Successful intervention is possible
  • The time to act is now 
  • Prepare the ground and engage members
  • Use industrial strength
  • Engage in dialogue at all levels

Summary of agreements


What has been won

CWU and Royal Mail Group


The CWU’s framework agreement with the Royal Mail group establishes principles around the introduction of new technology and structures through which the union can participate in its design through to its implementation. The main principle is that technology is to be used to improve processes and not to be used to ‘de-humanise’ work in any way. The National Trials Working Group with the employer oversees trials of new technology, and agrees terms of reference (ToRs) around each introduction. They have recently reduced automated parcel sorting machines and a new digital HR system. The ToRs guarantee everything from safeguarding the jobs of direct employees, to health and safety, data protection and minimum staffing levels. Locally, CWU negotiators have used the introduction of the new technologies to win improved shift patterns and a shorter working week for members.

Unite automation campaign

After an extensive research and dissemination exercise that involved workshops on automation across all 19 of its industrial sector groups, Unite reps have initiated campaigns around new technology in a number of sectors: from passenger transport, to food manufacturing and automotive. Although momentum was slowed due to the Covid 19 pandemic, stewards at Rolls Royce Motors (BMW Group) got their management to set up a Joint Working Group on new technology which will discuss how to safeguard jobs and any concerns about new equipment.

EVG union and Deutsche Bahn (Germany)

The Work 4.0 agreement between German transport union EVG and the railway group Deutsche Bahn is a comprehensive long-term deal providing ongoing safeguards and support for workers as the railways face increasing automation and digitalisation. Negotiated after a significant research and consultation exercise with members, the agreement starts out with a definition of ‘quality work’, which is asserts should be maintained even as job roles change with incoming technology.  It lays out a number of ways in which the union will work jointly with the employer in the design of new technology, in examining the skills needs of specific job roles as they evolve, to the design and roll out of training so that no worker is ‘de-skilled’. 

Partnership Council working in Wales

The Workforce Partnership Council is developing a set of principles on digitalisation that support the involvement, participation and consultation of staff and trade unions when new digital and data methodologies and new technologies are introduced.  This follows the recommendations of a WPC report on the impact of innovative technology on the public sector workforce and will build upon the principles of the Partnership and Managing Change Agreement which requires state employers to use best endeavours to ensure employment continuity whenever changes are made which affect the workforce.  It also requires employers to consult trade unions at the earliest appropriate opportunity and before any irreversible decisions are made. Progress is slower in the private sector Council for Economic Development

Partnership working: (Various employers)

There are also several positive examples of unions working in partnership with employers to ensure the best possible outcome for workers of the introduction of new technology. For example Community union and Zurich Insurance have worked together on an extensive internal reskilling and redeployment process, elsewhere UNISON members at Wheatley Group and GMB members in an ASDA warehouse can feedback constructively to employers around technology and see improvements.

Singapore social dialogue process

In Singapore, government, unions and employers worked together in ‘social dialogue’ to address new technology, draw up industrial transformation maps across different economic sectors and work out a strategy to facilitate the transition, including reskilling workers.

Swedish job councils

In Sweden, another model for solving the reskilling and redeployment needs created by technology is the Job Security Councils. These are funded by workers and employers (0.3% of payroll of affected companies) and act as an insurance scheme for workers, offering careers guidance and training.

Remote working agreements

In recent months, UK unions PCS in HMRC and the CWU in Santander have won remote working agreements that have safeguarded jobs as technological change and the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic has led to these employers choosing to downsize their office-based operations.

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