'Worrying direction' | Rise of AI tech could be 'race to the bottom for workers' rights'

Rise of AI tech could be 'race to the bottom for workers' rights'

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has warned that the government is failing to protect workers from being “exploited” by new AI technologies.

The warning came as politicians, tech leaders, regulators and unions met for the TUC AI conference in London on Tuesday, April 18.

The TUC said AI is “transforming” the way people work and the way in which they are managed, with AI-powered technologies now making “high-risk, life changing” decisions about workers’ lives, include line-managing, hiring and firing staff.

An employment lawyer also warned that, without proper safeguards, the rapid growth of AI in the workplace could spark “a race to the bottom for workers’ rights”.

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AI is being used to analyse facial expressions, tone of voice and accents to assess candidates’ suitability for roles. Left unchecked, the union warns that AI could lead to greater discrimination at work across the economy.

Lack of worker voice and transparency

The TUC warned that many workers are being kept in the dark about how AI is being used to make decisions that directly affect them.

TUC polling published last year revealed that a clear majority want stronger regulation of new technology at work:

  • Seven in 10 (72%) workers fear that without careful regulation, using technology to make decisions about workers could increase unfair treatment (compared to 61% 2020).

  • Eight in ten (82%) now support a legal requirement to consult before introducing monitoring (compared to 75% in 2020)

  • Eight in 10 (77%) support no monitoring outside working hours, suggesting strong support for a right to disconnect (compared to 72% in 2020)

The TUC says employers must disclose to workers how AI is being used in the workplace to make decisions about them, and it said that every worker should be entitled to a human review of decisions made by AI systems so they can challenge decisions that are unfair and discriminatory.

Flimsy protections

The TUC says ministers are refusing to put in place the necessary “guardrails” to safeguard workers’ rights.

The union body said that last month’s AI white paper was a “dismal failure” with the government providing only vague guidance to regulators on how to ensure AI is used ethically at work, and no additional capacity or resource to cope with rising demand.

Instead, the government just offered a series of “vague” and “flimsy” commitments that will have no statutory footing, said the TUC.

Data bill is a “worrying direction of travel”

The TUC warned that government’s Data Protection and Digital Information Bill is already setting a “worrying direction of travel”, adding that the bill will dilute important rights – currently guaranteed under GDPR – which provide workers with protections against automated decision making (this is often decision making by AI) and give workers and unions a say over the introduction of new technologies through an impact assessment process.

The union body says that in addition to failing to regulate properly, the government is also watering down important protections.

TUC Assistant General Secretary Kate Bell said: “AI is going to transform the way millions work in this country and is already being used across the economy to line-manage, and hire and fire staff.

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“Without fair rules, this could lead to widespread discrimination and unfair treatment at work.

“But the government is refusing to put in place the necessary guardrails to stop people from being exploited.

“Instead of clear and enforceable protections, ministers have issued a series of vague and flimsy commitments that are not worth the paper they are written on. And they have failed to provide regulators with the resources they need to do their jobs properly.

“It’s essential that employment law keeps pace with the AI revolution. But last month’s dismal AI white paper spectacularly failed to do that.”

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Commenting on the government’s data bill, Bell added: “The government is setting a worrying direction of travel.

“On the one hand ministers are refusing to properly regulate AI. And on the other hand, they are watering down important protections through the data bill.

“This will leave workers more vulnerable to unscrupulous employers.”

Robin Allen KC, Leading AI and employment rights lawyer, said: “More money, more expertise, more cross-regulatory working, more urgent interventions, more control of AI: without these it will not be just a race to the bottom for workers’ rights, the whole idea of any rights at work will become illusory.”

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