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  • Writer's pictureChristina J. Colclough

The Neglected Worker

Are you a worker?

Experience tells me that many of you - at least for an instant - would probably have thought "no". But hang on - if you are employed, no matter at what level of expertise or education, you are a worker. You are also a worker if you are on precarious contracts (gig economy, zero-hour contracts) or you are subject to the informal economy.

This means (at least still) that the vast majority of people who work are workers. Although figures vary across the world (see OECD 2020 figure below), millions and millions of us across the world are workers.

The Neglected Worker

Yet in many future of work discussions, fora, debates and/or panels workers are ironically and concerningly not invited to voice their thoughts. This is especially evident when the events are tech-orientated. No matter whether the topic is the Ethics of AI, data governance or even the automation of jobs, time and time again workers and/or their representatives (typically trade unions) are nowhere to be seen. Industry representatives are there, experts too, consumer organisations and maybe even government officials, but no workers.

This is unacceptable and must be remedied. Here's a good story to exemplify why. I was an official trade union representative in the OECD's expert group that was tasked to draft the OECDs AI Principles. They were adopted more or less as drafted by the OECD Council in May 2019. I was asked to address the Council in an 4 minute brief. Having listened to the many praises from other speakers, I took the floor and said:

Congratulations! You have now taken an important and necessary step towards making digital technology serve people and planet. Now you must take the next step and put practice to principle. On the principle of fairness you must ask: "Fair for whom". What's fair for the employers, is not necessarily fair for the workers. What's fair for men, is not necessarily far for women. We need to talk - dialogue is key for a fair digital future".

Several of the politicians nodded, took the question, mumbled it. Fair for whom? The same goes for all the other principles. Accountable to whom? Explainable to whom? We can never achieve the fine principles if solutions are unilaterally sought, or if they neglect the voices of those they are all about: in the case of work, the workers.

I have numerous examples of events that have taken place recently that neglected the voice of the workers: UNESCO discussing their draft AI Principles and Education with EdTech companies yet no teachers and no teachers' unions. Or the EU roundtable on AI and the Rule of Law - again no workers or their unions on the speakers' list. GPAI's Future of Work Working Group that includes just one union person. Or their Data Governance Working Group with no workers, and as of yet no focus on data governance at work. Yet the work I and others do, which can be read across this website, highlights how workers are becoming commodities subject increasingly to data inferences and probability analyses, and how workers' data rights are poorly defined or even excluded from government regulations across the world. We simply cannot continue to neglect neither the workers' voice, nor going to the core of digitalisation at work: to inferences, data extraction and the lack of (co)-governance of algorithmic systems.

What Needs Doing

Whilst it is evident that this must change, we also need to look inward and ask how our own self-understanding is effecting the neglect of workers. Are you a worker? It's time all those in employment, in contractual relations in the labour market, and all those subject to the informal economy, realise that we are workers. All of us regardless of hierarchical position, education or other forms of privilege. We should be joining forces, collectivising our responses and demanding unequivocally a seat at the digital negotiation and governance table.

Change can only come about if we free ourselves from the illusion that we somehow are different from the workers out there. Or, more directly, that workers are those who do the jobs we would rather not do. This is an misconception that has been allowed to manifest itself and has fragmented us from one another. Work is work. No matter how it is conducted and under which contractual forms (or the lack of), work is work and it is performed by workers. By you. By me.

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