Advancing technologies and automation have led to serious structural changes in most workplaces. Currently, robots and computers perform more tasks that were previously done by human laborers. According to a McKinsey study, automation can increase global productivity by almost 1.4% annually. However, while it can increase productivity, half of the human-done activities will be replaced by automation, leading to an estimated $15 trillion loss in wages.
According to the study, these activities are majorly physical tasks in structured environments, such as data collection and processing. Even though the real effects of automation are yet to be seen, low-skilled workers, who are already affected by low pay, tough working conditions, and job insecurity, will be affected. Therefore, labor unions should find ways of protecting worker’s rights to make automation beneficial to all.
That said, below are the dangers posed by automation to worker’s rights and how labor unions can protect vulnerable workers.
Danger of Automation
Below are some effects of automation on worker’s rights;
- New Technology Has Disrupted Workplace Laws
Despite being set several decades ago, most countries have workplace laws that protect the rights of every employee. These laws include regulations that prevent discrimination, laws that guide employee minimum wage, overtime pay, and worker’s safety. However, as mentioned, these regulations are decades old and rarely updated.
These laws haven’t been updated to suit advancing technology and changes in the economy, such as the gig economy. As such, they not only expose employees but also leave most employees without proper protection from workplace abuses and exclude others from protection at all.
Emerging technologies, such as robotics, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and monitoring systems, have begun altering workplaces fundamentally in ways that cannot be ignored. Such progress underpins the need for urgent changes and amendments to employment laws.
- Diminished Employee Privacy
Advancing technologies allow employers to leverage gaps in employment laws more than ever. Most employees, both on-site and remote workers, currently use computers, smartphones, and other workplace equipment that allow their employers to monitor in real-time their location and activities, even during off-duty. As if not enough, emerging technologies allow for greater privacy intrusions.
For instance, one healthcare firm used by most established employers attested to using the company’s employee search history and medical insurance claims to predict employees with greater risks of being diabetic or pregnant. Even though the firm claimed that it provided only summary information to their employer clients, such as the total number of women trying to have children, this information can be used legally to reveal the identity of these workers.
Except for a few situations, such as bathrooms and changing rooms where employees expect some privacy, those working in private companies have no legal right to avoid this form of monitoring. In some situations, they might not even be informed that they are being monitored. On the other hand, public-sector employees benefit from the Fourth Amendment, prohibiting companies from unreasonable monitoring.
- AI Discrimination
Even though employment discrimination laws, which are far from being perfect, can provide some protection to employees, these laws have faced a lot of criticism due to their limited view of what can constitute discrimination. These laws’ limited view of discrimination often makes it difficult for affected workers to file, substantiate, or get a meaningful settlement from their lawsuits.
Unfortunately, emerging technology, specifically artificial intelligence, exacerbates this problem. For instance, AI software used in the hiring process is thought to eliminate or reduce biases of human decisions. However, they can be more biased since they depend on large amounts of data, which can be initially biased.
A good example is the multi-year AI hiring project recently abandoned by Amazon for discriminating against women. The program relied on the male-dominated Amazon workforce and associated automatically categorized men as good workers. Even though Amazon didn’t use the program in making their hiring decisions, employers using these technologies without sufficient knowledge end up being discriminatory.
How Unions Can Help
While workplace changes that come with automation are irrevocable, labor unions should help employees to mitigate these threats. Below are some ways that labor unions can help;
- Discuss automation in their CBAs – unions can help employees secure their jobs by including automation in collective bargaining agreements.
- Promote employee access to retraining programs – employees should adapt to the changing work environment through training and retraining. Labor unions should identify how to help employees adapt to emerging technology to reduce layoffs.
- Protect worker’s wages – automation has led to inequality and income polarization. However, unions can bargain for better employee wages as a collective force.
- Hold companies and employees accountable to all Fair Labor Practices.
The Bottom Line
Worker’s rights are just but one of the many threats posed by automation and other advancing technologies. Even though these changes are inevitable, labor unions should stand up to protect and support employees as they navigate these serious challenges. On their part, employees should consult an employment law professional to safeguard their rights.
Author | Emily Forbes
An Entrepreneur, Mother & A passionate tech writer in the technology industry!