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Women need trade unions to take on the threat of automation

The jobs being hardest hit by automation are in occupations dominated by women, says SHARON GRAHAM

THERE are few threats as potentially dangerous for working people as “industry 4.0.” 

Research suggests that 35 per cent of all UK jobs could be lost within the next two decades. 

But, as well as eliminating entire occupations, automation will also create vast wealth. PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimates that artificial intelligence alone could add £232 billion to the UK economy by 2030.

In the midst of the 1980s Thatcherite reforms, we lost jobs and wages to technology while boardrooms profited. 

As a society we can’t afford the same again but worse. Today is International Women’s Day and we are on the front line of automation.

Right now the jobs being hardest hit are in occupations dominated by women. You only have to look at your local high street and see cashiers disappearing — 73 per cent of whom are women — to know that retail jobs are already in the emergency ward. 

And the same is going to happen in other sectors. Call centres, another area where the majority of the workforce are women, are predicted to be hard hit by dramatic advances in AI. 

Experts believe that, in five years, we won’t even be able to tell the difference between talking to a computer or a human. 

This impending, at times dramatic, loss of work will be further exacerbated for women. Recent research by the Institute of Development Studies shows that women are also less likely to get the new jobs created over the coming decades. The proverbial “double-whammy.” On the one hand, work done by women will be eroded, while, on the other, new jobs are likely to be created in sectors where women are in the minority. 

On top of this we have good old sexism, like James Damore from Google opining that women are genetically unsuited to tech roles. Please. And this from a mouthpiece of the so-called Silicon Valley progressives. 

There is clearly a real fight to be had. We already know that there are fewer women qualified to take Stem jobs and blatant sexism is not going to help. 

And as more decisions are taken by artificial intelligence and not people, we run the risk of hard-wiring sexism into the algorithms that they use.  

Algorithms tell machines how to make decisions and keep “learning” to improve those decisions. The problem is that the real world is still full of sexism and other social biases. 

These biases can then picked up and replicated by “machine learning.” Human resource functions are already overrun with automation. It is easy to see how that could affect the already uneven playing field that women face at work.

In the past year I have been talking to thousands of shop stewards, reps, equalities committees, officers and organisers of the union about Unite’s political and industrial response to automation. 
Across the union our activists have made it clear that we will need to ensure a future that works for women. 

One element of our consultation was the launch of our automation survey to shop stewards and reps. Over 2,000 responded and their verdict was clear. Hundreds included equalities as a priority. 

But automation will not only affect women. It will change the way all of us work and live. So how do we make sure that ordinary working people get their fair share? 

At Unite we believe there has to be both an industrial and political response. We are drafting a 21st Century Manifesto for the workplace. This will include both our industrial objectives and our political demands. 

The union has already produced a new technology agreement for collective bargaining to help our shop stewards and reps negotiate safeguards and promote benefits such as shorter working time without loss of pay. 

This should be deliverable. Better robots should not just mean job cuts and reskilling. We should be realistic but also confident and ambitious. 

When we consulted our shop stewards and reps, they overwhelmingly backed a progressive, industrial response. 
Over 80 per cent supported building strike-ready workplaces. They are clearly prepared to fight if they have to, but they also want political change. Over 90 per cent wanted job protection to be enshrined in law and for human beings to be made legally accountable for the actions of robots. 

Only when we as a trade union movement are prepared for the future industrially and politically will we really be able to press for the change that we all want to see. 

Politically our hopes lie with a future government of the left — one that puts the interests of working people at the heart of decision-making. Industrially, we can start making change today. This is no time for defeatism and cynicism. It is time for realistic ambition. 

Why can’t women fight to protect their jobs? And why can’t profit-loaded corporations reduce working time without loss of pay? 

Britain’s long-hours culture is notorious and hits women hardest. If their union is organised and willing, there is no reason whatsoever that concessions will not be won from employers. 

Mass sackings are not inevitable. It is time for the trade union movement to have more confidence in itself, in our reason for being. 

We should not be embarrassed to demand more from the rich man’s table and neither should we bow to the “inevitable” and lay blame elsewhere. If we really want it, we can be that change that working people are looking for.

Sharon Graham is Unite executive officer.

 

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