Book Review: Time to legislate over AI

Given the threat that AI poses to workers, Tony Burke recommends a pamphlet that sets out the way forward

Commentary icon17 Jun 2024|Comment

Tony Burke

Chair of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom

Algorithmic Management And A New Generation Of Rights At Work by Dr Joe Atkinson and Philippa Collins
Institute of Employment Rights, £10, £5 download

IER booklets have for years provided an authoritative analysis of employment rights issues and, in some instances, have pointed the way forward and helped draft future employment legislation.

IER’s new pamphlet, Algorithmic Management And A New Generation Of Rights At Work, written by Dr Joe Atkinson (University of Southampton) and Professor Philippa Collins (University of Bristol) is one such booklet that all incoming Labour MPs should read, along with the TUC’s draft Artificial Intelligence (Employment and Regulation) Bill.

How AI will effect workers has been much talked about. A low point was Rishi Sunak’s “AI Summit” at Bletchley Park, to which unions were not invited, that amounted to little more than a photo opportunity for Sunak to schmooze with Elon Musk.

I have no doubt there will be many benefits for working people and society from the use of AI, but one of its biggest drawbacks is AI’s potential for intrusiveness, coupled with the ability to produce in nanoseconds what it would take humans to do in hours.

As Unite national officer for the media Louisa Bull told the global union Union Network International: “It is never acceptable to pass off responsibility for key decisions to non-human agents and yet that is happening.” One of the major areas in which AI will have a profound negative impact, and where the union is busy organising digital and tech workers, is the media.

The authors rightly point out that “technology has revolutionised the way we work over the last 30 years and is now changing radically the way in which working people are managed.

“Rapid advances in ‘artificial intelligence’ have given rise to complex and powerful algorithmic management tools that pose an increasing threat to the right of workers to enjoy decent working conditions and exercise agency over their working lives.”

Although the Labour manifesto has a reference to “updating regulations to outlaw the use of predictive technologies for blacklisting, and safeguard against the singling out of workers for mistreatment or the sack without any evidence of human interaction,” overall the current outdated employment protections will just not be enough to provide the protections workers will need.

As the authors point out, with collective bargaining in Britain at low levels, for millions of people protection will not be available to those engaged in business models that exploit workers.

They correctly contend that what is needed is “a new regulatory framework giving workers and unions a genuine voice in the use of algorithmic management tools, alongside recognition and protection of their rights and access to justice that ensures their employers can be held to account.”

Without widespread sectoral collective bargaining a new framework of protection for non-human interventions and decisions that is underpinned by law, and not merely a toothless code of practice, is now essential.

Coupled with the TUC’s recent work, this IER booklet sets out the way forward. A Labour government needs to agree employment protections in consultation with those unions already in at the deep end, and have members working and organising in digital and tech companies such as Unite, NUJ, CWU, along with the TUC, to implement the TUC’s Artificial Intelligence (Employment and Regulation) Bill as first step.

For Labour the spade work already done, and coupled with the invaluable research of Atkinson and Collins, it’s a no-brainer.

Download here.

This Book review was featured first in the Morning Star. We thank them for their kind permission to reproduce it here.

Tony Burke

Tony Burke is chair of the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom.