How the UK Fails to Safeguard Workers Amidst the Advancement of AI?

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UK (Parliament Politic Magazine) – Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has announced plans to host a global summit in London this autumn, focusing on the crucial issue of safety in artificial intelligence. This decision comes as Sunak expresses his deep concern regarding the “existential risks” associated with the rapidly advancing technology.

Even our prime minister, who is currently enjoying a vacation in California, recognizes the significance of this matter and is open to the possibility of state intervention to prevent AI from becoming uncontrollable.

However, beyond the realm of high-profile diplomatic endeavors, the government has shown a lack of enthusiasm in examining the profound changes that digital technologies have already brought to people’s professional lives.

Britain’s Lacking Measures to Secure Workers

A recent report on “connected tech,” released by the culture, media, and sport select committee, emphasized the vast possibilities presented by the so-called “fourth Industrial Revolution” across various industries.

But it also highlighted the potential risks faced by individual workers, such as the automation of certain job aspects leading to their obsolescence, or excessive monitoring that erodes their sense of autonomy.

During the committee hearing, Amazon proudly showcased the utilization of technology in its fulfillment centers, emphasizing its positive impact on efficiency and productivity. According to them: “reduced the physical burden on employees, reducing walking time and taking on repetitive tasks, and freed them up to focus on more sophisticated tasks beyond the scope of automation”.

However, Amazon employees have expressed that the introduction of advanced monitoring technology into their work routine has not brought them the anticipated respite from monotony. Instead, it has resulted in a relentless escalation of their job demands. Contrary to the notion of being liberated by robots, employees perceive a growing pressure to match up to these automated counterparts.

Why the UK Falls Short in AI-Related Hazards

The potential impact of generative AI extends far beyond the confines of the warehouse. In fact, recent advancements in this field have already found applications in various industries, completely transforming the nature of work.

During a hearing with the select committee, Dr. Matthew Cole from the Oxford Internet Institute issued a warning. He emphasized that the advent of technology would likely result in a shift in the composition of tasks and a reduction in the skill level required for many roles.

This would occur as complex tasks are broken down into simpler ones, enabling machines to take over. It is crucial to recognize that generative AI is not limited to merely monitoring or directing workers. Instead, it has the potential to completely reshape and redefine their roles.

Unlike consumers, who have the freedom to choose whether or not to install a smart speaker or an internet-enabled fridge, workers face difficulties in opting out due to their contractual relationship with their employer.

When considering the issue of high-tech workplace surveillance, the committee focuses on a principle that has also been supported by trade unions: “The monitoring of employees in smart workplaces should only be conducted after consulting and obtaining consent from those being monitored.”

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Insufficient Safeguards for Occupational Pitfalls

A significant development has taken place at Royal Mail, where the CWU union and management have reached an agreement on the usage restrictions of data collected by handheld tracking devices for postmen. This agreement comes after a public dispute on the matter before a parliamentary committee earlier this year.

However, beyond the realm of parliamentary scrutiny, unions and activists have consistently turned to privacy legislation, specifically the GDPR regime derived from the EU, to address concerns regarding the implementation of advanced employment practices that have lacked proper consultation.

Uber drivers filed a lawsuit against the ride-hailing service, claiming that the facial ID technology used was discriminatory. Similarly, Just Eat drivers have resorted to subject access requests in an attempt to understand the reasons behind their removal from the app.

Campaigners argue that the government’s new post-Brexit GDPR regime offers weaker safeguards for workers. They question why employment disputes are being addressed through data protection law.

The culture, media, and sport select committee propose that the government should “clarify” the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) role in monitoring surveillance technologies. However, this suggestion seems far-fetched considering the watchdog’s traditional responsibilities.

Beth Malcolm

Beth Malcolm is Scottish based Journalist at Heriot-Watt University studying French and British Sign Language. She is originally from the north west of England but is living in Edinburgh to complete her studies.