A Growing Consensus: Autonomy’s response to the TUC’s new report
By Autonomy Co-Director Kyle Lewis
The latest report from the TUC, entitled A Future that Works for Working People, marks an important intervention in discussions around the way in which automating technologies should be embraced to directly benefit workers and the economy more broadly. The benefits outlined in the paper include using automating technologies to pay dividends to workers in the form of increased pay, better working conditions and, most significantly, a shorter working week. There are some important things to note about the analyses and recommendations that stood out from the report, which I note below.
Shorter hours for workers
The report correctly points out that full time workers in the UK are currently working some of the longest hours in Europe. According to their research, the number of people now working seven days a week stands at over 1.4 million. Whilst unemployment levels are at an historical low, the conditions under which people work appear to be deteriorating badly. In order to readdress this power imbalance, The TUC report outlines how reducing working time is a way to ‘share the gains of increased prosperity’. This increased prosperity is premised on the productivity gains that could be generated by implementing automating and AI technologies in a way that decreases the working week rather than, as is currently the case, increases the share price and profitability for big business. In order for this to happen the paper recommends the UK government considers ‘moving to a four-day week over the course of the century’. A particularly interesting finding from the TUC’s extensive survey of workers was that when asked what the ‘ideal’ length of the working week would be, there is a ‘clear consensus that this was around four days’.
Whilst the proposal identifies a radical strategy for unions to adopt (one premised on embracing the emancipatory potential of automation), its ambiguous strategic guidelines limit its political efficacy. Rather than setting an unspecified moving target (one that can be easily kicked down the road by successive governments), a reduced working week policy should set short-term lines in the sand, e.g. clamping down on the billions of pounds of overtime that are currently worked, but also coupled with medium-term targets, e.g. a four day week, maintaining wage levels, over the next five years. This is partly about enforcing existing rules (as the TUC point out), but it is also about providing new rules to guide practices at scale. We shouldn’t forget that there already exist companies that are currently moving to a four day week (with five day pay). It’s possible today – the real question is how to do this at scale, across the economy, and whether there is a concerted effort to do so. This is where the state and large worker organisations like the TUC come into the picture.
An enabling landscape could accelerate this shift
As the TUC has argued previously, economic strategy should also focus on increasing the quality of work produced (primarily by empowering worker voice), as well as reducing the quantity of labour carried out. This means incorporating a shorter working week policy into a broader economic landscape that recognises the multifaceted ways in which productivity gains can be had alongside increased freedom for all. A shorter working week isn’t a silver bullet (nothing is). For example, a guaranteed basic income (loosening employer control over workers) operating in conjunction with worker-owned businesses would help provide some of the social infrastructure that empowers people to adopt more productive and creative working practices (increasing autonomy in and out of work). From this position, and within this broader, enabling landscape, automating technologies and shorter working weeks can truly become one of the tools used in constructing a future that works for working people, rather than leaving us waiting as passive observers for technologies to appear over the course of the century.
The report states that 74% of workers surveyed wanted technology to give them more control over their working lives. However, it goes on to describe how rather than being a liberating force, communication technology is helping to facilitate an ‘always-on culture’, whereby workers can’t psychologically switch off from the demands of work. Whilst technology has both liberating and oppressive potential, the political conditions and working culture in which it operates should always be the main focus of attention. The TUC’S report therefore addresses both these issues in calling for a ban on zero-hour contracts and recommending ‘immediate action to tighten working time rules’. This timely intervention addresses how the terms and conditions of flexible working need to be redefined in order to recognise the damaging effects of being underemployed or overworked has on mental health. Implementing a ‘workers agreement’ for how new technology is used in (and out of) workplaces also provides an opportunity to established a situation wherein technology isn’t imposed on workers but is put in its place as part of a healthy and sustainable working culture, benefiting both managers and those who answer to them.
Kyle Lewis is Co-Director of Autonomy and associate lecturer in health and social sciences at UWE, Bristol. He can be found on Twitter at @autonomous_coys