Calls for stricter UK oversight of AI in the workplace amid concerns over staff rights

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Activists, unions and MPs are calling for tighter oversight of the use of artificial intelligence in the workplace amid growing concerns over its effect on staff rights.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is holding a half-day conference on Tuesday to highlight the challenges of ensuring workers are treated fairly as what it calls “management by algorithm” becomes more prevalent.

“Making work more rewarding, making it more satisfying and, above all, making it safer and fairer – these are all possibilities that AI offers us,” said Mary Towers, an employment lawyer who runs a TUC project on AI at work.

“But what we’re saying is that we’re in a really important moment where technology is developing so rapidly, and what we have to ask ourselves is, what direction do we want it to go, and how do we make sure that everyone’s voice is heard?

The TUC has highlighted the growing use of employee surveillance. Royal Mail chief executive Simon Thompson recently admitted that some postal workers’ movements are being closely tracked using handheld devices, with the data being used for performance management, for example. However, speaking to MPs in February, Thompson accused rogue managers of breaching company policy.

Striking staff at Amazon’s Coventry warehouse have described a rigid regime of ever-changing targets which they believe are set by artificial intelligence. Amazon says these performance goals are “regularly evaluated and built upon benchmarks based on employee performance history that are actually achievable.”

An operations manager who had worked at several retail distribution centers told academics compiling a recent TUC research, “Warehouses will at some point expect robot efficiency from humans.”

Matt Buckley, president of United Tech and Allied Workers, a branch of the communications workers union that focuses on the sector, said its members highlighted concerns about being monitored at work.

“There’s really no regulation right now around employee surveillance as a concept, it’s just up to the companies,” he said. “Really, what we need isn’t a set of new laws, it’s a new body that can be flexible and iterative and that responds to workers’ needs.”

But activists say some of the most alarming cases are where judgments about worker behavior are actually being made by algorithms, with little or no human oversight, including so-called “robo-layoffs.”

A UK-based group of Uber drivers recently successfully took the platform to an appeals court in Amsterdam to force it to reveal details about how decisions were made about them.

The company is considering whether to appeal the case to the Dutch supreme court. A spokesperson said, “Uber maintains the position that these decisions were based on human review and not automated decision making.”

Cases like this have built on the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which campaigners warn the UK government is prepared to weaken in upcoming legislation.

They argue that the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, due for its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday, will make it easier for companies to refuse workers’ requests for data held about them and ease the requirement to have a human involved in the decision making process.

Cansu Safak, of the campaign group Worker Info Exchange, which championed the Uber case, said: “We are essentially trying to close gaps in labor law using the GDPR. The reason we are using the GDPR is because these workers have no other option. They have no other means of appeal.”

Adam Cantwell-Corn, of Connected by Data, who is calling for more public engagement in how AI is implemented, said: “Most people’s experience with the GDPR is annoying pop-ups, but if you understand it in the context of increasing dataification and artificial workplace intelligence in particular, it has really important provisions that the bill is weakening.

Labour’s deputy group leader, Angela Rayner, who has the future of work in her portfolio, said:

“The powerful potential of data analytics and artificial intelligence are already transforming our economy. Labor rights must keep pace with these changes so that risks can be managed and harms prevented, while benefits are perceived by workers.

“Labor will update labor rights and protections to fit the modern economy.”

Separately, the UIK government released a white paper on AI last month that sets out a number of principles for the use of the technology, including the need for fairness, transparency and “explainability”.

He suggested that existing regulators, including the Health and Safety Executive and the Commission on Equality and Human Rights, could take responsibility for ensuring these principles are followed.

But Cantwell-Corn dismissed this approach as “basically just a bunch of intentions with no firepower behind it.”

Even some conservatives agree. Former cabinet minister David Davis, who has a long history of defending civil liberties, said: “The conventional regulatory approach will fail, because it will be civil servants who think they know what’s going on, when they don’t.”

He called for a “swift royal commission” on how best to oversee the technology, with the key principle being “if you use an AI, you are responsible for the consequences.”

The TUC is calling for the right to explainability – so that workers are able to understand how technology is being used to make decisions about them – and a legal obligation for employers to consult before the new AI is introduced.

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