Technology can liberate us or imprison us

 

"Technology can be used in ways that liberate us, or in ways that imprison us. That's why we need new policies that increase workers’ rights, and their bargaining power, alongside investment in new technology."

 

Speech to the European Christian Workers Movement "Digital Work - working anytime, anywhere - the impact on workers, their families and society" conference in Birmingham.

 

Hello everyone, and thank you so much for inviting me to take part in this event. I’m delighted that you’ve chosen to focus on the new economy, and the impact of technology on the way we all work, the way we all order our lives, and the way we think about ourselves. 

I put it like that because work is more than just something we do to earn money and put food on the table – although of course that’s part of what it is. Work is something that gives meaning and shape to life. 

That’s an insight that the founders of the Labour movement had. I’m not here to make a party political speech, but as the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party I do want to point out that I’m part of a movement that has always seen itself very specifically as being the political vehicle for working people to have representation. 

Labour – the party of working people, and the party of work. The clue is in the name. 
 

My party emerged out of the trade union movement, a movement and a party both born over a century ago, based on the insight that working people needed collective representation if their interests are to be delivered.   

Those early trade unionists and Labour politicians knew that they were defined not by what they owned but by what they did – by their labour. They took pride in their work, and they demanded respect for it. 
 

And the trade union link is still an absolutely vital part of my party’s identity, keeping us grounded and reminding us what our purpose is and who we represent. 

The modern successors of the miners and factory workers and shipbuilders and railwaymen who set up what is now the Labour Party – who saw the need for a democratic politics that advanced their interests, because the existing political order contained nothing for them – are the workers who feel equally left out today. 
 
They are the people working two or three jobs in the gig economy: not just driving cabs or delivering takeaway meals, but building websites, translating, copywriting, editing. 
 
They are the long-serving workers who see technology making their jobs increasingly precarious, but who haven’t been given the opportunities to train and develop the skills they need to find something new. 
 
They are the highly skilled graduates who may have a job, but don’t see any prospect of ever building up a deposit on a house, or of paying back their student loans. 
 
Workers who are on the wrong side of the power imbalance between labour and capital. 
 
Who are at risk of exploitation, and who don’t have the bargaining clout to increase their wages and improve their conditions. 

I was drawn into thinking seriously about automation and the future of work when I saw some of the things that could now be done by machines that in the past we could only dream about. 

Not just robotic arms in factories, but robots that can drive cars, draft contracts, even write music.  

This new technology is thrilling and fascinating and often fun, but it comes with a human cost. If human workers can be replaced by machines, that leads to some predictions that shocked me when I read them. 

Eleven million UK jobs lost. Maybe fifteen million. Nearly half of US manufacturing jobs lost. Technology making doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers obsolete. 
 
Mass technological unemployment. An economy where everything can be done by machine – if only you can afford to pay the person who owns the machine, which you can't because the machines do all the jobs. 
 
It seemed obvious to me that we needed to look in more depth at some of these predictions: to ask what is really going on, and to think about what we can do about it. 
 
That’s why two years ago I set up the Future of Work Commission. It reported nearly a year ago, and I’m really thrilled that it has now become an independent Institute for the Future of Work, co-chaired by Naomi Climer, the first woman President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and the Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Chris Pissarides. I’m looking forward to seeing the work it does in the coming years.  

One of the most important things the Commission did is to go back to first principles. 
 
What is the point of work anyway? Obviously it pays the rent, but there’s so much more to it than that. 
 
And if we reduce it to that – if we boil all of our hard-won professional skills and experience and expertise down to its economic exchange value – we miss something vital. 
 
Anything that we spend so much of our waking hours doing has to have more value than just the money it pays us. It helps to define who we are as people, too. 
 
When you meet someone for the first time, one of the first questions you ask is: what do you do? And what do you want to do?  
 
Work is part of our personal identity – part of how we define ourselves and value ourselves. 
 
At its best, work is something we take genuine pride in, independently of the money we make from it. 
 
At its worst, being stuck in a bad job – even if it pays well – can make you worry about the direction your whole life is taking. 
 
And that insight leads to some important conclusions. 
 
As technology changes the world of work, the job of politicians and policymakers is to ensure that we generate and protect good work. 
 
Work that pays, yes, but also work that provides dignity and security, that respects people’s autonomy and choices, and allows them to exercise their creativity and judgement. 
 
That kind of work should be available to everyone – not just to those on the highest incomes. And where it isn’t, we have to focus on how we make it so. 
 
It’s not enough to pay lip service to the aspiration. We need to understand the components of good work, prioritise it, create it, measure it, and encourage fresh thinking about how to safeguard it through the age of technology. So that it means something for the many, not the few. 
 
That’s why the Commission suggested a Charter for Good Work, which sets out principles that should be put at the heart of public policymaking to make sure that we look at the quality of jobs, not just the quantity. 
 
Put simply, public policy should have this central ambition: to create the social and economic conditions which generate and protect good work in the age of technology.

That could happen. Automation and artificial intelligence can, with the right policy framework around it, create as many jobs as it destroys. 
 
Take transport. The traditional transport industry will suffer significant disruption. But rolling out new ‘green’ modes of transport may compensate for that. 
 
And how many workers are actually displaced – rather than retrained or redeployed – will depend on us. That’s not economic inevitability – it depends on political decisions. 
  

Because if the heavy lifting and routine tasks of the future can be carried out by 21st century machines, then the workforce of the future will be free to focus on activities that generate greater economic benefits for a greater number of people. 
 
That is liberating. So I suppose what I’m really saying is – robots can set us free. 
 
Free to pursue working lives in which everyone will learn new skills, not once during a long career – but three or four times. 
 
Free to take advantage of new industries and jobs, many of which haven’t even been created yet. 
 
Free to use the knowledge we acquire at school – which must teach a curriculum built around creative thinking, alongside computer science and digital skills – to pursue fulfilling and rewarding jobs.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about technology enabling us to work less. My colleague John McDonnell, and the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady, have both spoken recently about the possibility of moving to a four-day week. The think tank the Social Market Foundation said just this week that efficiency gains from automation could lead to a current week’s economic output being produced in just four days. And if technology is “labour-saving”, it’s right that the benefits of that in increased leisure time are passed down to ordinary workers. 

But that sharing of benefits hasn’t always happened. If work becomes more efficient, companies might choose to increase production rather than give their workers an extra day. And some new technology has created new forms of exploitation. 

Think of the Amazon “fulfilment centres” – warehouses, like the one in Rugeley, in this region– where workers are walking miles every day to pick orders for next-day delivery to customers,  

10 years ago those same customers wouldn’t have dreamed of being able to get everything they need sent to their door  

 At that same warehouse in Rugeley the staff are worked so hard that 75% of them say they are afraid to go to the toilet on shift.  

They are so worried of missing work due to sickness that ambulances have arrived at the warehouse over 100 times, and there was even a report that one woman miscarried while on duty 

This is the dark side of new technology and new forms of workplace surveillance and control  
 
Shift management systems that suit employers but make it impossible for workers to be sure of when they can spend time with their families.  
 
App-based businesses who insist that their staff are self-employed, even though to any fair-minded observer they are regular employees. 
 
Which is why we need policies that increase workers’ rights, and their bargaining power, alongside investment in new technology. 
 
So what I’m saying, put simply, is that discussions like the ones you’re having today are absolutely vital. The ways in which technology changes our lives and the lives of millions of workers are not inevitable. Technology itself is morally neutral – but it can be used in ways that liberate us, or in ways that imprison us. 

Without democratic engagement with these questions, without politicians being forced to confront them and consider their moral dimension, the benefits of technology risk being hoarded to those who control them, and workers risk continuing to be exploited.  

All of us, as members of families, churches, trade unions, political parties, and other organisations bring our own values and our own interests to these discussions. It’s right that we do, because these are questions about values and morality. Not just about what technology makes possible, but about what we want technology to make possible. 

If we all think carefully about what work means, what we all want from it, and how technology can enhance our lives – and about what new rights and responsibilities we need to recognise in order to make that happen – then the promise of automation and new technology can be fulfilled. 

 

Days like today are an important part of that. Thank you.