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Artificial intelligence poses an inhuman risk to worker rights

3 min read

This pandemic has transformed the way millions work. Many of us hadn’t even heard of Zoom until the crisis hit - now that we’re experts we sorely miss meeting colleagues face-to-face.

But the huge growth in remote working is not the only technological shift we have witnessed during Covid-19. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) at work has massively accelerated too – albeit under the radar.

This is not a niche issue. AI is increasingly making life-changing decisions about our working lives - like who gets hired, how much workers are paid, and crucially who is made redundant from their job.

But as advances in technology gather pace, UK employment law is failing to keep up.

This should concern us all.

The TUC has today published a 100 page legal opinion from leading employment rights lawyers Robin Allen QC and Dee Masters from the AI Law Consultancy.

Both are hugely respected practitioners in their field and their message to government and policymakers is clear.

Unless urgent new legal protections are put in place, workings will become increasingly and powerless to challenge “inhuman” forms of AI performance management. We are already seeing examples of this happening – especially in the gig economy.

Put bluntly, there needs to be far more transparency over how AI is being used at work.

Put bluntly, there needs to be far more transparency over how AI is being used at work.

TUC research published in November revealed that fewer than one in three (31 per cent) workers are consulted when any new forms of technology are introduced. 

And six in ten (60 per cent) said that unless carefully regulated, AI could increase unfair treatment in the workplace. 

That is why the TUC has today issued a joint call to tech companies, employers and ministers to work with us on a new set legal reforms for the ethical use of AI at work. 

These reforms should include: 

  • a legal duty on employers to consult trade unions on the use of high risk and intrusive forms of AI in the workplace. 
  • A legal right for all workers to have a human review of decisions made by AI systems so they can challenge decisions that are unfair and discriminatory. 
  • Amendments to the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR) and Equality Act to guard against discrimination by algorithm. 
  • A legal right to "switch off" from work so workers can have proper downtime in their lives. 

None of these calls are a roadblock to innovation. But they will provide much-needed protection for workers.

As legal experts Robin Allen and Dee Masters sum up neatly: Used properly, AI can change the world of work for good. But used in the wrong way it can be exceptionally dangerous. 

“There are currently huge gaps in the law when it comes to regulating AI at work. They must be quickly plugged quickly to stop workers from being discriminated against and mistreated.”

The TUC feels the same. Which is why, in addition to today’s legal report, we are publishing a short manifesto on the fair and transparent use of AI at work.

We hope all political parties sign up to the values and principles it enshrines.

Make no mistake. AI can be harnessed to transform working lives for the better.

But without proper regulation, accountability and transparency, we risk it being used to set punishing targets, rob workers of human connection and deny them dignity at work.

We are at a fork in the road on workplace AI technology. It’s vital that we pick the right path.

Frances O’Grady is TUC General Secretary

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