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Taking on automation

Unite’s Susan Matthews on ensuring BAEM workers benefit from automation
Hajera Blagg, Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

BAEM and women workers are often hardest hit by changes to the job market, Unite delegate Susan Matthews highlighted as she moved a motion on automation and how every worker must benefit equally from such changes.


Moving the motion on behalf of the TUC Black Workers Conference on Tuesday (September 11), she said that “it is clear that this round of automation is going to change all our working lives at a faster pace than ever before.


“The TUC Black Workers Conference is clear that we need to organise, campaign and fight to make sure that we don’t get short changed,” she added.


Susan pointed to figures showing that black workers suffer twice as much from unemployment as white workers and that many of the sectors with the highest numbers of BAEM workers are the same sectors at the highest risk of job losses through automation.


“We also know that too many BAEM workers are in insecure and non-permanent jobs,” she noted. “These jobs are most at risk from the threats of automation.


“And it’s not just about job cuts in high risk sectors,” Susan went on to say. “It is also about making sure that BAEM workers are getting new jobs in sectors that are growing, and the training and retraining opportunities too.


“Research shows that black workers face further barriers when applying for jobs in the science, technology, and engineering sector.


“Conference, this has to change.”


Susan highlighted how computer programmes, used by many companies to make decisions, are not immune to racism.


“Algorithms can hide racist attitudes,” she said. “Artificial intelligence often means that when computers learn from people they also learn their bias. So are we going to have to deal with potential ‘racist robots’?”


She noted how automation is making workplace spying easier than ever before, with the threat of racial profiling and targeted discrimination.


“Also, we see how BAEM workers have been disadvantaged by voice and face recognition software that – because of the way it is programmed – doesn’t work as well for people who are not white,” she added. “This is unacceptable.


“So we need to understand and safeguard against these threats.”


Susan urged the trade union movement to campaign for better job security, better terms and conditions, better health and safety and new skills and proper training.


“Colleagues, our motion sets out a plan of how we can accomplish this,” she said. “It is a plan that is not just for BAEM workers but for the whole trade union movement.”


“Automation threatens us all,” Susan warned. “But it is not all bad news. There are opportunities as well. We need to be ready.


“There will be new jobs created and automation is going to make some people very rich. And we need to get our share.”


Susan explained how Unite is preparing itself for the future of automation – Unite’s executive officer Sharon Graham has developed an overarching strategy for industrial sectors and political plans.


Unite is also creating an automation risk register for shop stewards, as well as developing a fighting fund to campaign. The union is moreover establishing a workplace manifesto to secure its members’ political demands, like a shorter working week.


“We need to take on automation,” she urged delegates. “Let’s all fight to make sure that no BAEM worker, or any other worker, loses out to automation.”


The motion was overwhelmingly carried.



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