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  • Writer's pictureChristina J. Colclough

AI and the Labour Market

- intervention at public hearing at the European Parliament May 25, 2021. Organised by the AIDA and EMPL committees

I was honoured to be invited to address MEPs from the European Parliament's AIDA and EMPL committees. Read my script below, and see meeting documents here.


Good morning and thank you chair.

In the below I will be suggesting 6 key policy areas. But let me start by revisiting the past. In 1919 at the end of the 1st WW world leaders signed the Treaty of Versailles. In that they agreed that “labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity or article of commerce”.

This was reconfirmed in 1944 at the end of the II WW in the Declaration of Philadelphia, now art 1:

Labour is not a commodity.

With the millions of data points extracted from workers on a daily basis, turning their actions and non-actions into mathematically defined “truths” or statistically calculated probabilities, we must ask: Are we betraying history?

Whilst digital systems can be effective, and can be productive, we must ask: EFFECTIVE FOR WHAT, PRODUCTIVE FOR WHAT.

Efficiency and productivity do not necessarily mean “good”, “fair” or even “legal”.

Our industrial relations systems are changing too - not least as a result of the many procured tasks and proprietary software. We are experiencing a changing balance of power in workplaces. As proprietary systems are introduced in workplaces, their logic, norms, instructions are muddling the traditional labour-management relations.

We must ask: Who is really deciding what?

Developers should know what the human rights, social, climate and/or economic impacts are or could be - but do they? Deploying managers should too. But do they? And can they unilaterally determine this?

And this leads me to offer my 6 points:

  • Whilst the GDPR offers some strong rights to workers, there are also some profound weaknesses. As pointed out by Professor Sandra Wachter and Bernt Mittelstadt, workers (indeed citizens) only have access to inferences that are directly related to their own personal data. Yet the majority of inferences that influence our lives, are not directly related to us. Think of your Netflix recommendations, your facebook news feeds, or think about why a worker is not called for an interview despite fulfilling all formal requirements. Maybe he or she, or you, have fallen victim to an opaque algorithm? We need to know! We need much stronger rights in this area.

  • To prevent the unabated quantification of workers, workers’ collective data rights need vastly improving. This relates to the need for much better regulation around data access and control. Workers must have the right to pool the data extracted on them and use it responsibly for the collective's benefit. Research on workers' data trusts or data collectives is urgently needed.

  • Algorithmic systems deployed in workplaces cannot simply be governed unilaterally by management. We need to find models for the co-governance of these systems that respects IR and recognises the important role of social dialogue.

And now, if I may, allow me to mention a few words about disruption and skills:

  • Many like to speak of the future of work as if it essentially is a debate around skills and especially STEM. This is a dangerous reduction of a complex, multifaceted change to work, workers, the social contract and rights. STEM simply cannot stand alone without the humanities. The current debates around AI Ethics proves the point.

  • No system, be it a biological, economic or human system can survive if there is not sufficient diversity. The same goes for the labour market. We need workers with all sorts of skills and experiences, and a labour market that honours and respects the labour of workers no matter if they are in low-valued or high-valued and thus typically low or high paid jobs.

  • In my 6th and final point, I wish to stress that disruption must go hand in hand with obligations. I would urge politicians to look into what these should be. We must commit employers to invest in the competencies and career paths of the affected workers- up and down supply chains.

With the proposals above, we can ensure through social dialogue, regulation and collective bargaining diverse and inclusive labour markets for generations to come. It is, to be frank, your responsibility to urgently turn the tides and prevent the irreversible commodification of work and workers.

Thank you

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