More than six million workers are worried their jobs could be replaced by machines over the next decade, according to a report urging trade unions and the government to provide more support for those at risk.
The findings come as Yvette Cooper, the Labour chair of the Commons home affairs select committee, launches a commission on workers and technology for the Fabian Society and the Community trade union.
While the rise of the machine economy could risk social disruption and further exacerbate the gap between rich and poor in Britain, the commission drawn from businesses, trade unions and academics will consider ways to support workers through the transition. Some companies are already beginning to shed jobs in favour of automation, including the online retailer Shop Direct, which earlier this year warned 2,000 jobs were at risk as it moves to a new distribution centre.
The Bank of England has previously warned that up to 15m jobs across the UK could be under threat. Meanwhile, the Centre for Cities thinktank estimates workers in Mansfield, Sunderland and Wakefield are the most vulnerable, versus people working in London and the south-east of England.
From polling of more than 1,000 people across the country, the commission, to be chaired by Cooper and lasting two years, found more than 37% – equivalent to 10 million workers – are worried their job will change for the worse over the next decade. Yet few people said they believed the government or trade unions were making adequate preparations for the arrival of new workplace technologies.
Less than a 10th of workers thought the government was doing enough, while only 16% said the trade union in their workplace had been taking steps to ensure technology would improve their working lives. The figures are likely to worry the union movement as it seeks to reverse a steady decline in membership in recent decades.
The findings from the commission followed several other studies into the impact from greater use of technology in the economy. The IPPR thinktank estimates as many as 44% of jobs in the UK could feasibly be automated over the coming decades, equating to more than 13.7 million people who together earn about £290bn. Economists fear lower-income and manual jobs would be most at risk, gouging away the middle class and putting greater pressure on the state as more people become unemployed.
Ideas previously floated for supporting workers have ranged from a universal basic income to help the unemployed to greater government spending on education and adult learning. Aiming to publish its findings in early 2020, the Fabian Society and Community commission will take evidence from workplaces across the country over the next two years. Members of the panel will be drawn from unions, businesses and other organisations, including the TUC, the Institute of Directors, Google, Sage and the University of Oxford.
Yvette Cooper said: “It’s vital that action is taken now to make sure technology creates new better jobs and that all workers benefit from new technology.
“We have to make sure that automation and the digital revolution don’t widen inequality and that everyone gets the help and support they need to get on … We need to ensure that automation is an opportunity and not a threat for British workers.”
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