Unions call for more workplace control of automation in Scotland

Unions have called for more workplace control of new technologies to avoid the potentially severe impact of automation
Unions have called for more workplace control of new technologies to avoid the potentially severe impact of automation
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Workers must be involved in how automation is introduced to avoid potentially severe consequences for them, according to a new report.

The Scottish Government and Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) study found that there are positives and negatives to automation.

Nicola Sturgeon. Picture:  John Linton/PA Wire

Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: John Linton/PA Wire

It argues that while there is “nothing remarkable” about the replacement of workers by new technologies, the consequences for affected workers have been “at times severe”.

It also points to the ways that new technologies are “transforming - for good and bad - the way the workplace is experienced”.

Unions have called for more workplace control of new technologies to avoid the potentially severe impact of automation, and ensure that safety, skills development and workplace security are guaranteed when new systems are introduced.

READ MORE: Tech company start-ups in Scotland jump by 77 per cent

STUC general secretary Grahame Smith said: “Automation represents a major challenge to how work is organised, but it is still unclear how it will affect the quality and type of work in the long term. Predictions swing between utopian visions of emancipation through technology, to dystopian views of severe inequality.

“The STUC and the Scottish Government report cuts through this debate to recognise both the positive and negative impacts of automation.

“It found examples where new technologies lead to job losses, such as the closure of bank branches due to increased internet banking; and examples where it can improve safety and security, like the digitised records in the health service.

“In all cases, workers must be involved in how automation is introduced, shaping or controlling their own workplaces through collective trade union involvement.

“Otherwise we are likely to see automation pursued as a cost-cutting, profit-driven measure, implemented without proper training or controls, or used to abuse staff with inappropriate targets or high levels of surveillance. These are the sorts of consequences we will be debating at Congress, which the union movement is working to avoid.”

The report, published on the day of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s address to the STUC Congress in Aviemore, puts these changes in the context of the growing prevalence of zero hours contracts and, especially, rising bogus self-employment which it suggests leads to lower job quality and increased economic insecurity.

The report, titled Technological Change and the Scottish Labour Market, found that there is “little evidence to suggest that technology is currently significantly ‘disrupting’ the Scottish labour market or that it is likely to do so in the short-medium term”.

It said the evidence does not support the view that automation and digitisation will lead to the “catastrophic net loss of jobs predicted by some researchers” but that it is likely that some occupations and sectors will experience “significant change”.

Unions will debate automation at their Congress this week.

A number of motions insist that while automation can bring benefits to workers and companies, adjustment to new technologies will not be automatic and will work best where workers have more control over technology.

Speaking before her conference address, Ms Sturgeon said: “We share a common objective with the STUC - to ensure automation and digitisation have positive outcomes for all of Scotland’s people.

“Scottish workers are already benefiting from quality job opportunities in sectors such as game development and data analytics, where we are at the forefront of technological change.

“The report recognises and addresses the genuine fears many workers have over ways in which technology might affect their working lives and future job prospects, and highlights where Scottish Government approaches to skills development and fair work can help meet the challenges of technological change.”

Scottish Labour said Scotland currently faces a “digital divide, with swathes of rural areas unable to access decent broadband”.

The party’s rural economy and connectivity spokesman Colin Smyth said: “Rural Scotland is sick and tired of the UK and Scottish governments constantly using this issue as an extension of their constitutional bickering and want both governments to start working together to deliver the proper broadband our rural economies desperately need before they fall further behind.”