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TUC's Paul Nowak: The tech revolution must happen with people, not to people

Workers must be given greater say over AI implementation to avoid widening inequality, according to the TUC's deputy general secretary Paul Nowak

Speaking on a panel discussion at the 2019 CIPD Festival of Work, Nowak said that success when adopting more technology at work depends on how involved employees are in the process.

“When it comes to AI we have two opportunities – we can entrench inequality or we can genuinely improve people’s working lives, but neither of these things will happen by accident,” he said.

“Workers have to be at the forefront of a digital revolution. We [the TUC] have recently been talking about this with regards to climate change and creating a ‘just transition’ for workers, but the same can be said with automation as well. This must be something that happens with workers, not something that happens to them.”

Nowak went on to explain that, while some progress has been made in improving workers' rights following the Taylor Review, policymakers must delve deeper into the challenges facing the workforce.

“While we welcome a lot of the recommendations made in the Taylor Review, the big point that was missing for me is looking at quality of work in terms of how we can empower people. We need to get serious about unions, about giving employees a greater voice at work by making sure they're getting a voice on the board," he said.

“There are problems happening across the workplace; there's wellbeing, getting from the shop floor to the boardroom, surveillance and the sorts of information our employer might have about us. We need to think about the changes that will affect people working in social care and hospitality.”

Part of this includes the need to view the government as an employer too, he added: “Earlier I was out on the picket line with cleaners working in government offices who have gone on strike. I would like to see our government look at the way it acts as an employer and lead by example.”

Also speaking on the panel, RSA CEO Matthew Taylor said that the future of work should be viewed differently: “We have to look at this much less granularly. The future of work isn’t certain. For example, there are actually more people working in retail but most of them are in warehouses rather than on shop floors because we expect to have things instantly. If you don’t have a monopoly it can sometimes be difficult to see something’s value."

He called for employers and policymakers to think more openly about the skills needed in the future economy: “One of the things I have called for is a national employability framework. In a world where people have a portfolio career we need to think about skills in a much broader sense. Middle-class people have LinkedIn as a way to promote themselves, but that isn’t relevant for people in work across all sectors. In 20 years coding won’t be important anymore, but resilience and empathy are skills that will always be needed.”

Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, added that this means looking at qualifications too: “When we think about reskilling 10 million people or so we really need to be strategic: businesses, unions and the government must work together to think about the skills we really need. So much of this depends on schools and what we’re teaching our kids; will GCSEs still be relevant? Or do we need to start thinking about education more broadly?”