“I’m sorry Bill; I’m afraid we can’t do that”*

Crossing my Twitter feed quite a lot in the last few days has been snippets of information contemplating the future of work in the context of the growth of applications of artificial intelligence. Frequently, the recent debate uses the somewhat ancient terminology of robots, but the focus of the analysis is mostly the same: robots have already stolen the futures of much of the now left-behind working class; and are now coming again to steal the futures of much of the middle class, leaving behind in employment only artists, carers and supervisors. (And, probably, (Polish) plumbers.) The result of that is, of course, sheer panic among the chattering classes much of whom were either fairly silent first time round or otherwise insistent that people had simply to adapt to market forces and get on with it.

The spark for these thoughts here in this post was firstly a brief report of UNI Global Union’s contribution to the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the OECD (hat-tip: Denise McGuire), which was recently considering the issue under the somewhat more sophisticated title of ‘digitalisation and the future of work’; together with a thoughtful post on ToUChstone from the TUC’s own Tim Page (hat-tip: Sue Ferns) (and building on top of Helen Nadin’s earlier series of posts).

The threat posed to employment by new technology is of course a very real one – even if it is not one that is particularly new. Trade unions have been grappling with issues of applications in the workplace of new, computer-aided technology, initially in manufacturing industry, since at least the 1960s. The issue of ensuring how a just transition can take place is not only a reasonable, entirely rational call, as Page argues, but is also likely to continue to dominate the approach typically adopted by trade union negotiators faced with local arguments for change.

Whether the threats now being posed by AI do represent a quantitatively-different series of scythes through our employment base and structure than what we have seen before of course remains to be seen. I’m a little sceptical: capitalism is, by force of necessity, endlessly creative at establishing new forms of work (and, indeed, so are workers) and has been since the days of the Luddites and Captain Swing; the list of jobs unheard of ten years ago is fairly legendary (in the World Economic Forum’s list or that of many others) and, of course, all these robots will need servicing and maintaining not least to prevent them from going wrong. And software can, as we all know, be notoriously buggy. Some future jobs will be very well-paid, others less so – pretty much as now – but I tend to share less the fairly apocalyptic vision that this level of disruption will lead to mass unemployment and bankrupt states.

Enter Bill Gates, with his ‘robot tax’. To be fair, though, it’s not just Bill, as Market Watch‘s excoriating and mostly on-the-button review illustrates. Gates’s concern is really two-fold: to slow down the process of automation; and to prevent the process of automation becoming discredited. The obvious news on the first is that ‘well, you can’t’, although I am with him a bit more on the second. But a robot tax is not the right solution. That it’s so against the zeitgeist in the UK and in the US, among others, is neither here nor there in terms of its value as a policy prescription, although this does reduce its likely potential for adoption; the key here is actually in persuading the likes of Google and Amazon to pay their fair share of the current tax take rather than be endlessly creative around the tax laws, as well as in persuading right-wing governments not to engage in tax competition policies. (If only there was an international bloc to which we could belong that made tackling both of these a little easier: you know, like a Union of Europe, or something.) Secondly, automation should lead to improved productivity, and the UK needs a lot more of that, so anything that has the potential to inhibit investment has to be rejected; here, the major policy issue lies in narrowing the growing gap between wages and productivity and in addressing the share of national income taken by wages. In short, ending inequality. And thirdly, taxing a robot for taking someone’s job – and precisely how difficult would that be in the detail? – tends to lead to workers affected allocating the blame for that job loss on the robot rather than on the manager who has actually taken the decision to automate it.

Applications of new technology in the UK have, as they were supposed to, led to a continuing reduction in working time – at least, at the average level. What has happened is that this reduction has led to increasingly precarious forms of work being introduced for some workers (involuntary part-time working; bogus ‘freelance’ employment or self-employment); while others, in the ‘core’, tend to be working even harder, and longer. The rewards of lower working time have not only been unfairly distributed; but management has found a way to make that reduction actually seem like a penalty; and on both those who have too little work as well as on those who have enough of it. There is a debate to be had on the introduction of a basic income such that the rewards that automation has brought are better distributed (and, indeed, valued). And, of course, workers in precarious forms of employment need to be better protected – which includes treating those who are clearly workers as such.

The question nevertheless remains of how to ensure a just transition.

Firstly, and remembering that people in cities in northern England feel that they have been ‘left behind’ substantially because there was no serious, concerted attempt to deal with the impact of manufacturing job loss in the 1980s, we need to have a proper national industrial strategy which approaches digitalisation recognising the benefits of automatisation but which also systematically attempts to deal with the impact. The lesson we should be learning about areas like Stoke and Copeland is that it is the market solutions that we tried in the 1980s and 1990s that do not work. It is precisely the market, not politicians, that has left people behind (and if people need any arguments about the disconnect between people and the policy process, just look at the turnout in Stoke – just 36.7%). Reinvesting in areas of decline will take money, and substantial amounts of it – of course, one of the arguments behind the uses to which a ‘robot tax’ could be dedicated although the drawbacks sketched above still lead me away from it.

Secondly, the collective, societal issues sparked by automatisation require collective solutions. Individual responses often lead to the expressions of political frustration that we are seeing because individual voices appear incoherent. Consequently, we need to find ways of re-collectivising our society around establishing a meaningful and coherent social dialogue around the variety of issues raised by digitalisation. At company level, this means a re-focus on establishing proper collective bargaining in the interests of a fairer workplace; and it probably means worker directors, and in the form perfectly encapsulated in the fifth paragraph of Janet Williamson’s piece for ToUChstone (and nothing other than this). At national level, establishing collective social dialogue in the interests of a fairer society means changing the language around trade unions, such that effective industrial action is not immediately demonised by the government either in parliament or in terms of reaching for the statute book; and it means inviting trade union leaders into specific dialogue, and with a view not just to listening but to reaching agreement. Brexit, and the plethora of issues that will be raised once the process of withdrawal has been triggered, represents an important test of the realism of the government’s intentions n this respect.

Giving effective voice to people demands that we listen, however uncomfortable that might be and however inconvenienced we might be by it. The alternative – around automatisation as well as any other aspect of the national dialogue that we might consider – is that we create (or that we entrench) pathways for nationalism and for extremism.

 

* Of course, an adapted quote from HAL9000, the computer whose sentience continues to influence our thoughts and fears about the dangers of AI.

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Before… and after

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1 tonne of Verdo briquettes

Weather: clear, dry (bit windy). Gloves required.

No. of packs on pallet: 96

No. of trips to shed: 48

No. of steps, pallet to shed: 23 (in each direction)

No. of times slipped on wet ground: 1

No. of times banged head on low shed entrance: 0 (Result!)

No. of minutes start to finish: 41

#SportingClubOfUist

Between the sunset and the sea

No, not the title of one of my photo blogs (not yet, anyway): Between the sunset and the sea is instead the evocative, and slightly gnomic, title of the first book by Simon Ingram, Editor of Trail magazine (the title is taken from a line of a poem expressing the joy of climbing mountains by the poet Geoffrey Winthrop Young).

In it, Ingram takes us on a journey up a personal selection of 16 UK mountains (some of them just hills, though 😉 ), nine of them in Scotland, four in Wales and three in England (all of these in the Lake District). The book has been out for a couple of years now but I’ve not long picked it up – a tribute to the work a good bookstore can do to keep titles alive by the use of good browsing displays. A hill walker myself – albeit largely in the ambition than in the actual and effortful reality, my Munro bagging to date having reached the princely total of one – Ingram had me entertained, educated and substantially enthralled. Each of his sixteen chapters – substantial essays in their own right – has a one-word and abstract title (Vision, Science, Light…), lending an appropriate degree of sparseness, mystery and isolation, which Ingram then expands upon in terms of accounting for his choices of mountain within his individual themes, and then relating his progress up them (the climbs are, mostly, solo) interspersed with lively and carefully researched accounts of the place each one has in our folklore, our social history and our culture. Along the way, we meet (metaphorically) a sturdy cast of characters: those involved in the Kinder Scout trespass (whose cousins in Scotland are also worth paying tribute to); Welsh slate miners; artists and poets; dedicated (to the point of obsession) Victorian scientists, early meteorologists and geologists; land reformists; and eccentrics. And, of course, plenty of wildlife.

The effect in reading is akin to being dragged from one’s armchair up a mountain by a friend who’s both enthusiastic and intelligent about the mountain in question and its weathers, but also about its history and its place. Ingram would, it would seem, be extremely good company for a mountain walk (it is something of a surprise that the dialogue with the people he meets, or climbs with, is by turns rather stilted and somewhat laconic, his climbing partners in particular tending to contribute gruff practical reality in contrast to Ingram’s knowledgeable romanticism). And he has an acute eye not just for the things he sees but for memorable ways in which to phrase them – a ‘malingering’ of midges, for example, or a popular mountain ‘bewigged’ by climbers.

Beware, of course: for sometimes Ingram on his solo climbs gets it wrong in terms of equipment, sustenance or timing – somewhat poor form, you might think, given his day job – while his apparently unerring ability to get into risky scrapes on many of them might well endanger those with lesser experience. Additionally, his research very occasionally lets him down: poor folk cleared from the Highlands in the Clearances to make way for sheep and other ‘improvements’ desired by landowners could not in any way be said to be ‘thriving’: that they were clearly not thriving was, after all, the point.

Nevertheless, Ingram reminds us in a brief reference that processes similar to the Clearances also happened in England, under the Enclosure Acts (and, indeed, this was part of a wider European movement of rural depopulation and urbanisation as societies sought to provide sufficient growth to deal with the effects of technological change – a process that has interesting parallels to what is happening today under the so-called fourth industrial revolution). The Clearances were, essentially, a class-based attack on the poor; they were not, as may be easily assumed, a result of absentee (English) landowners visiting attacks on Scottish people (although, in some places, they may well have reflected part of the undoubted process of repression which carried on in respect of the havoc wreaked, within Scotland too, by the 1745 Jacobite rebellion). That such attacks happened on the poor in England and elsewhere in Europe seems to have something important to say in respect of the sovereignty debate, whether we are talking about Scotland vis-a-vis the rest of the UK, or the UK vis-a-vis the European Union; as well as the need to build unity among the working class regardless of background in defence against the attacks which are to come.

Ingram’s own preferences for not only climbing mountains via less established routes and in hostile weather but spending the night on them too is, I suspect, likely to mean that the book is more of interest to the fireside armchair walker than the climbing enthusiast who is, in turn, going to have to work a little harder to establish the practical functionalism of routes and practical difficulties – though these things are here, too. But in providing a wide-ranging and beautiful set of reasons to climb mountains other than (dread phrase) ‘because they’re there’, Ingram has done an excellent job in giving an additional helping hand to those of us who, while feeling the pull of the mountains, nevertheless manage to find too many reasons to stay in the comfort of our armchairs.

NB edited on 1 March to add the link to the piece about the Craigallian Fire memorial, which I’d read previously and searched unsuccessfully for when writing this review.

Workers’ rights under the Tories: the slow reveal

This week has seen the publication of the Brexit White Paper, one day after the vote in the Commons on the Second Reading of the EU withdrawal Bill. As is clear from these pages, I’m resolutely opposed to withdrawal from the EU, but – in this immediate context – I do worry about the ability of the Commons to stand up for itself to the vocal, and evidently in charge, little Englanders when it allows itself to be abused in this way.

Anyway, my more immediate concern here is the issue of workers’ rights, which the government has trumpeted in its 12-point plan. I blogged about the dangers in reference to May’s Lancaster House speech just below, but I’m returning quickly to the issue here because – as we all suspected – things are turning out to be not quite as they seem.

I’m not referring here to the infamous (and now corrected) chart 7.1 which, originally, suffered from an incorrect labelling of the axes and which, as a (surely coincidental) result, made the position look much better than it actually is. Nor am I referring to the contents of workers’ rights themselves – though I do note, firstly, that holiday entitlement, paid maternity leave and parental leave, as the major issues being featured in the White Paper, have come in under recent Labour governments (annual leave, in 1998; extension of paid maternity maternity leave to 39 weeks in 2007; and parental leave (i.e. the extension of the right to fathers) in 2003); and, secondly, that Tory governments, where they have focused on workers’ rights at all, have usually had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the well (and, largely, as a result of developments in the EU) on the grounds that such rights were a ‘burden on business’.

Now, I’m firmly of the view that leopards are not capable of changing their spots. To illustrate what I mean, the relevant section of May’s Lancaster House speech is worth quoting in full:

‘And a fairer Britain is a country that protects and enhances the rights people have at work.That is why, as we translate the body of European law into our domestic regulations, we will ensure that workers rights are fully protected and maintained.

Indeed, under my leadership, not only will the government protect the rights of workers set out in European legislation, we will build on them. Because under this government, we will make sure legal protection for workers keeps pace with the changing labour market – and that the voices of workers are heard by the boards of publicly-listed companies for the first time.’

We would be making a bad mistake were we to see the White Paper as the Lancaster House speech writ large. In the interim weeks, this commitment has been – already – watered down to the point that the White Paper, away from the headlines and in the detail of section 7.3, now commits itself to strengthening rights only ‘when it is the right choice for UK workers’.

This watering down has been pointed out elsewhere – for example by Professor Steve Peers in a particularly good analysis (in spite of the picture credit!) – although he generously attributes this observation to unnamed ‘others’. But it is worthwhile emphasising. A government under intense economic and political pressure, and desperate for a trade deal with a Trump-led US, is, on top of Liam Fox’s deregulatory-inspired views on the issue of workers’ rights (as Peers points out), unlikely to see this as a particularly propitious time in which to be strengthening workers’ rights. I wonder also as regards the precise source of this watering down – i.e. the identity of the minister (Fox, as Business Secretary? or was it May herself?) who was responsible. Most importantly, however, it has given itself a clear reason not to abide by the commitments it appears, on the surface, to be espousing. Weasel words for a weasel government.

Much will depend on how far the withdrawal Bill is amended next week in Committee. It is to be hoped that the Bill will reflect as much of the concerns over workers’ rights of UK trade unions – in my view quite evidently the best judge of what is the right choice for UK workers – as possible. Some sign that the government will actively and meaningfully liaise (and not just consult) with the TUC on this as this ridiculous, undesirable process moves forward would indeed be a good test of the seriousness of its intentions in this regard. But I’m not exactly going to be holding my breath.