Commission urges action to ensure technology benefits workers

Report warns Covid and automation could be 'double whammy' for low paid staff

4th January 2021 about a 5 minute read

A report from the Commission on Workers and Technology warns that low-paid staff are facing a “doubly whammy” as the Covid-19 pandemic speeds up the pace of technology replacing human jobs. 

Its report, called Sharing the Future – Workers and Technology in the 2020s, takes a ‘worker’s eye view’ of technology and change in the workplace, with a focus on automation of existing job tasks.

The Commission was set up in August 2018 by Community, the trade union, and the Fabian Society. It was chaired by Yvette Cooper MP. Launching the report she said technology was creating new opportunities but there was a danger of it widening inequality.

“The Covid crisis is causing a double whammy for low-paid workers. In 2020 they were more likely to have been furloughed or made redundant.

“In 2021 they are more likely to find their jobs have been replaced by technology as Covid accelerates automation.

“We need urgent action now to make sure all workers benefit and that we use technology to rebuild a fairer, stronger, greener economy instead.”

Jobs at risk

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has estimated that more than 1.5 million low-skilled jobs are at high risk of automation.

Of those, 70% are women and 99% do not have degrees. The 16-24 age group are more than eight times as likely to be in these high-risk jobs, the ONS said.

“We need urgent action to make sure all workers benefit and that we use technology to rebuild a fairer, stronger, greener economy." Yvette Cooper MP, Commission Chair

The Commission report states that the UK is at a crossroads and the decisions taken now by government, employers and trade unions will shape the future of work for decades to come.

“Without action, the combined risks of the Covid-19 recession and accelerated automation in the coming years could result in mass unemployment, worse jobs and widening inequality.

“But with leadership, new technology can be harnessed to improve work, empower workers and boost productivity across the country. We need to get it right first time and this report sets out how to do that.”

Technology at forefront of transition

The report says that post-Covid, technology will be at the forefront of whatever transition comes in the months and years ahead

Technology is saving and changing jobs that would otherwise have been lost because of Covid-19. And the UK has seen its huge potential to improve work and boost productivity for the future.

But the authors also note that the Covid-19 crisis is dramatically accelerating the pace of job disruption and dislocation.

Many lost jobs will not come back

And they warns that many of the jobs put on hold by public health measures will not come back, even when better times return.

Those on low incomes have been most likely to lose out in the short term and they are also at greater risk from the long-term consequences of the crisis.

According to the report the future of work could go in one of two directions after the Covid-19 crisis:

“In one possible future, jobs get worse as technology gets better. Millions of people face greater insecurity, harder work, more surveillance, and worse pay and conditions.”

Technology ‘force for good’

But in a second possible scenario:

“Technology change could be a huge force for good. We need it to solve Covid-19, support our ageing population, make our economies more productive, fund and improve our public services, and deal with the crisis of climate change. We can use technological innovation to make our country fairer, stronger, cleaner and greener”.

It concludes: “The Covid-19 crisis forces us to make an active choice between these two paths. We cannot sit back”.

The report’s key findings include:

  • Jobs have been saved during the Covid-19 crisis because of new technologies
  • The Covid-19 crisis is set to accelerate job-replacing automation meaning that vulnerable sectors face a ‘double whammy’
  • Inequality is likely to rise as low-paid and disadvantaged workers are at greater risk from the Covid-19 recession and from automation
  • Some places will also be affected more severely by the combination of Covid-19 and automation than others
  • The government’s economic response to the first wave of Covid-19 was effective in the short term, but now ministers need to address the ‘double whammy’ of Covid-19 and technology change.

The Commission suggests a range of measures including:

  • Provide immediate free training for furloughed workers and more support for freelance staff
  • Introduce new industry plans for sectors where jobs are most at risk
  • Create and support good jobs to absorb unemployment during the recession
  • Introduce a ‘work and training’ guarantee for the unemployed during the recession. The government’s new Kickstart programme for young unemployed should be expanded to offer a guarantee for all unemployed young people of either a job with training or a return to full-time education.
  • Fund a major increase in adult training and education during the next 12 months
  • Implement a robust strategy to increase the value, status and pay of care work and other essential lowpaid jobs that are unlikely to be automated.

A summary of Sharing the Future – Workers and Technology in the 2020s is available here