AI the “most significant threat” to workers today, CWU urges

Union Matters, Tech

Tuesday was another busy day in Liverpool at the 155th Trades Union Congress, as the CWU warned trade unionists that artificial intelligence was one of the “most significant threats” the union movement faces.

Leading the debate was CWU President Karen Rose, who gave a powerful speech about the potential pitfalls of artificial intelligence (AI).  Moving the composite motion on the question, Karen stirred delegates to the need for action over this growing issue.

Describing the grasp of AI as being “everywhere from Netflix recommendations to human resources management”, Karen described how employers across the world are complicit in the “hiring, firing and overall surveillance” of working people from new technology.

She drew attention to the fact that CWU members are amongst the earliest groups of workers to experience the “damaging impact” of this phenomenon.

In Royal Mail, she described the plight of posties now being forced to wear Postal Digital Assistants (PDAs) on their beat – meaning that as they work, they are now having data collected on their pace, ‘productivity’ and overall ‘standards’, with some workers finding themselves disciplined if they stop for a rest or answer questions from members of the public.

In practice, she argued, this meant that new technology “is used to pit workers against each other”, and leads to workers experiencing the invasion of their privacy, the intensification of their work, and wider forms of discrimination.

Karen also highlighted similar concerns at BT, where she pointed out how outgoing CEO Philip Jansen wants to see 10,000 jobs vanish down to AI in the coming years.

Moving the motion, which called for “iron-clad legal rights” in new laws relating to AI, she said: “We must urgently pursue legislation against the unregulated use of AI in the workplace, prioritising workers rights, well being and job security.

“This includes establishing guidelines to make sure humans are an integral part of the work process.”

Resisting the Hostile Environment

Meanwhile, NEC member Michelle Bailey spoke passionately about the struggle faced by thousands of Caribbean migrants to this country have faced with the Windrush scandal.

Describing how tens of thousands of people had been deported to countries they hadn’t even been to since they were children, Michelle told delegates that “it saddens me that we’re still talking about the Windrush scandal, and the hostile environment that has been created and is still effecting people today.”

Arguing for the motion, which calls for a statutory judge-led public inquiry into how the Windrush scandal was allowed to happen, she also drew attention to the failures of the compensation scheme established by the government.

Among the criticism of poor timing, a “burdensome application process” and “contempt” being shown towards Windrush migrants from Home Office staff, Michelle also pointed out that only 12.8% of the thousands of eligible claimants have been compensated for what has happened.

Paying Their Fair Share

Speaking on behalf of the union on the question of creating new and fairer systems of taxation was Andy Mercer, who said: “With our public services and NHS in crisis, you’d think the government would have taken advantage of windfall profits to help rebuild our national infrastructure after the devastation of austerity and the pandemic.

“But they haven’t. Instead, \they’ve allowed the 1% to extract more wealth than they have ever before, through tax loopholes – while working people are being made to pay more and more just to get by.”

Calling for a “fairer outcome” for working class people in the way tax is delivered in Britain today, Andy urged delegates to not forget that the rich can’t “escape their responsibilities” when it comes to tax, and that this is a vital political issue.

Housing for All

Also gaining huge applause was Jacqueline Morrey. who gave a thorough defence of decent social housing.

Arguing that “having a decent home should be available to all”, she gave delegates a sketch of how the social housing system has collapsed in the previous decades – reminding people of how since 1991, there has been an annual loss of 24,000 social homes every year.

She also pointed out how private renters spend a third of their income on rent – or 40% of their income “if you’re unlucky enough to live in the capital”.

The prosepct of home ownership is “increasingly unattainable for many in this scenario”, going on to point out how “in not-so-Great Britain in 2021, a senior care worker couldn’t afford a mortgage in 98% of council areas

“A postal worker in 96%, a nurse in 74% and a teacher in 60%.”

She went on to say that  “having a decent home should be something available to all”, urging delegates to fight for “suitable accommodation” and that ”this situation is unacceptable.”