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Science + Tech

Think a Robot Couldn’t Take Your Job? Think Again

A new report warns automation could make work worse for most British Columbians — unless we take control.

By Laird Cronk and Sussanne Skidmore 7 Sep 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Laird Cronk is president of the BC Federation of Labour and Sussanne Skidmore is its secretary-treasurer.

As well as grilling burgers and soaking up the last of the summer sun, Labour Day is a time to think about working people and the future of work. In 2020, that inevitably means thinking about pandemic-driven working from home. But there’s another trend that deserves at least as much attention: automation.

If you think automation has nothing to do with you and your job, you may want to think again. According to a new BC Federation of Labour research paper, fully 60 per cent of British Columbia’s labour force faces a medium or high likelihood of seeing their jobs affected by automation.

We used to think of automation as a factor only when it comes to the most rote, repetitive jobs — but those days are over. Today more and more sophisticated, complex work is on the table, as machine learning removes the need for every task to be easily described in programming code.

And while automation doesn’t necessarily wipe out individual jobs, it can still erode human employment. Even if your job isn’t entirely eliminated, you could still find yourself losing parts of it as machines take on specific aspects of the work we do.

Meanwhile, the platforms that automation creates can become the sites for a whole new breed of digital sweatshops — billed as opportunities in the exciting gig economy, but in reality, menial, precarious and grotesquely underpaid work.

Take Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a web-based platform that matches workers with offers of digital piecework, often tasks like taking surveys, cleaning up data or helping to teach software to distinguish between images. Researchers looked at 3.8 million tasks performed by 2,676 workers, and determined the median wage was an appalling $2 an hour.

The impact goes beyond individual workers or workplaces. One prediction about automation is that it would polarize employment, shifting the workforce out of industrial jobs and into jobs in the care, service and technical fields. (That’s also a shift away from the sector traditionally associated with middle-class prosperity and heavy union density.)

Our report shows that’s exactly what’s happening to B.C.’s workforce. But now there’s new concern because of the growing potential for automation in the care and service and technical fields too.

All of this is happening at the same time as wages are polarizing too, with inequality growing not just overall, but in each job category — disproportionately affecting women, people of colour and immigrants.

Our report finds that automation has the potential to drive a wedge further and further into our workforce. These trends suggest it can divide us into two groups: a smaller, fortunate group with good jobs, earning higher and higher wages; and a larger segment whose work is menial, precarious, poorly paid and increasingly scarce.

That’s the potential. But not the inevitable outcome.

Let’s resist the temptation to see our choice as being between two unacceptable economies: one technologized and hopelessly inequitable, the other impoverished and unable to compete. We can do a lot better than that in British Columbia.

It starts with rejecting the idea that automation is necessarily good or bad. As our report makes clear, automation isn’t just (or even mainly) about efficiency, productivity or output; it’s also about power. Who gets to make the decisions about our economic future? Is it a future that benefits a handful of people, or is it a future for all?

When we start to ask the question that way, the challenge for working people and unions stops being to resist automation at all costs. Our goal, instead, is agency over when, how and where automation is implemented, and how it affects our work and our lives.

Automation driven solely by employers does indeed leave us with that choice between competing dystopias. But automation where working people, our unions and our elected governments are helping to set the agenda could actually live up to the promise of its biggest boosters: prosperity and freedom from drudgery.

That said, we don’t have the luxury of waiting to see how things unfold, even in the middle of a pandemic — especially in the middle of a pandemic. To many employers, this outbreak only strengthens the case for replacing workers with COVID-proof machines and software.

If we want to help decide the future of the workplace, the time to begin doing that is now.

Or maybe Tuesday. Labour Day is a holiday, after all.

The full report, Automation and Labour in British Columbia, is available for free download on the BC Federation of Labour website.  [Tyee]

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