TUC warns that AI is ‘robbing workers of their dignity’

artificial-intelligenceBritain’s trade union barons have joined forces with legal experts to warn that huge gaps in UK law over the use of artificial intelligence at work could lead to “widespread” discrimination and unfair treatment in the workplace.

A new report – carried out for the TUC by employment rights lawyers Robin Allen QC and Dee Masters from the AI Law Consultancy – says that employment law is failing to keep pace with the rapid expansion of AI at work.

The report says unless urgent new legal protections are put in place, workers will become increasingly vulnerable and powerless to challenge “inhuman” forms of AI performance management.

In an unprecedented move, the TUC has today issued a joint call to tech companies, employers and government to support a new set legal reforms for the ethical use of AI at work.

The TUC says these legal reforms should include a legal duty on employers to consult trade unions on the use of “high risk” and intrusive forms of AI in the workplace as well as a legal right for all workers to have a human review of decisions made by AI systems so they can challenge decisions that are unfair and discriminatory.

It also wants amendments to the UK GDPR and Equality Act to guard against discriminatory algorithms and a legal right to ‘switch off’ from work so workers can create “communication free” time in their lives.

The report highlights how the use of AI has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, with AI-powered technologies now making “high-risk, life changing” decisions about workers’ lives.

These decisions include selecting candidates for interview, day-to-day line management, performance ratings, shift allocation and deciding who is disciplined or made redundant. And AI is being used to analyse facial expressions, tone of voice and accents to assess candidates’ suitability for roles, the report claims.

Left unchecked, the report warns that AI could lead to greater discrimination with workers in the gig economy and insecure work particularly at risk.

The TUC says that without the right to a human review of decisions, workers could be hired and fired entirely by algorithm.

The report warns of a huge lack of transparency over the use of AI at work, with many staff left in the dark over how AI is being used to make decisions that directly affect them.

TUC research published in November revealed that fewer than one in three (31%) workers are consulted when any new forms of technology are introduced. And three-fifths (60%) said that unless carefully regulated, AI could increase unfair treatment in the workplace.

The TUC is calling for employers to disclose to workers how AI is being used in the workplace to make decisions about them.

Along with today’s report the TUC is also publishing a short manifesto for the fair and transparent use of AI at work.
It is encouraging political parties, employers and tech companies to sign up it and to work with the union movement on improving the regulation of AI technology.

The TUC says workers must share in the gains of tech and not be robbed of their dignity at work.

General secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This is a fork in the road. AI at work could be used to improve productivity and working lives. But it is already being used to make life-changing decisions about people at work – like who gets hired and fired.

“Without fair rules, the use of AI at work could lead to widespread discrimination and unfair treatment – especially for those in insecure work and the gig economy.

“Every worker must have the right to have AI decisions reviewed by a human manager. And workplace AI must be harnessed for good – not to set punishing targets and rob workers of their dignity.”

Robin Allen QC and Dee Masters said: “The TUC is right to call for urgent legislative changes to ensure that workers and companies can both enjoy the benefits of AI.

“Used properly, AI can change the world of work for good. Used in the wrong way it can be exceptionally dangerous. There are currently huge gaps in British law when it comes to regulating AI at work. They must be plugged quickly to stop workers from being discriminated against and mistreated.

“Already important decisions are being made by machines. Accountability, transparency and accuracy need to be guaranteed by the legal system through the carefully crafted legal reforms we propose.

“There are clear red lines, which must not be crossed if work is not to become dehumanised.”

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