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  • Christina J. Colclough

When Algorithms Hire and Fire

Updated: Sep 7

Take a second and consider whether you would you have your job, if an algorithm had been in charge of hiring you?

(this article first featured in ICTUR volume 25, issue 3, 2018)



Take a second and consider whether you would you have your job, if an algorithm had been in charge of hiring you? Think about your financial records, your health file, your friends on social media. Are you a member of a trade union? Do you own a Fitbit? What are your shopping habits and what do you do in your spare time? And then ask, how would all of this effect your work life? Would you get hired, fired, disciplined or promoted?

What seems like a bizarre question, is in fact one that we all need to think about and react to.  ‘Management-by-algorithm’ is spreading, and more and more data from many different sources is used in HR processes. Critically, across the world, bar to a certain extent in Europe, there are very few regulations in place that protect the misuse of workers’ personal data in and by companies. Trade unions must fill this regulatory gap and put workers’ data rights on the agenda to hold management and governments accountable and responsible. What’s all this about data? We are leaving a data trail behind us all the time.  From our social media profiles, our likes and posts, to customer service phone calls, visits to the doctor, use of our GPS or cash withdrawals from the bank.  We acceptingly give away our names and email addresses when we log on to free Wi-Fi hotspots in cafes, airports or train stations and we more or less have become so accustomed to “free” digital services that we almost get irritated when a mobile app costs a dollar.  The thing is, nothing is free.  What we have been doing and still are doing, is freely and oftentimes willingly giving away our location, habits, activities and opinions. In other words, we are paying with our data.

Surveillance, manipulation and algorithmic control Whilst our eyes have been slightly opened by the revelations of how data was used to target and manipulate voters such as in the US election and the Brexit result, politicians and experts afford very very little attention to how data is used, and potentially misused, in relation to work.  There is a sharp rise in the use of algorithms, data and artificial intelligence (AI) in human resources and productivity planning.  Companies are popping up that offer AI solutions to cut costs on dealing with people.  From autonomous sorting of job applicants and applications, to the use of extensive data to measure productivity, to employee mood testing, to ways to automatically find out what motivates you and much much more.

UNI Global Union is working on these issues across the world.  We are discussing how we, the unions, can tap into the significance of datasets and benefit from the insights they can offer.  We are raising our voices against the monopolisation of data ownership and asking whether data should be made a commons.  A public good that can be accessed by us all.  One thing is to protect our fundamental rights, the other is to take that one step further and demand a collective ownership of data.  Both are equally important.

We have also written two key documents, namely, the Top Ten Principles of Workers’ Data Privacy and Protection and the Top Ten Principles of Ethical AI.  The documents are interrelated and list the essential demands we must put in place to avoid a future where workers are subjected to algorithmic decision making that is beyond human control and insight.

Act Now! Unions across the world must address these fundamental issues.  We simply cannot rely on others to do so.  Digital technologies are developing at great speed, and our ethical demands to them must be clear.  We cannot risk that people are prevented from working or thriving in the labour market due to an algorithm that nobody claims to control, and nobody can rectify. 

UNI Global Union believes that a collective ownership of data, ethical AI and workers’ data rights are the key issues for unions.  We must commit management as well as governments to take responsibility.  Only by doing so can we ensure a digital world of work that is empowering, inclusive and open to all.

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