Trade unions and academics seek ways to adapt to modern economy

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A conference in Glasgow for academics and trade unionsts will look at the impact of technology on the workplace (Nick Ansell/PA)

Strategies to help trade unions adapt to the modern economy will be developed at a technology conference being held in Glasgow.

Academics and trade unionists will address issues such as the gig economy, gender biases in artificial intelligence and whether app-based work and technological developments are undermining traditional employment at the Behind Closed Circuits event on Wednesday.

Against a backdrop of declining trade union membership, the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) will examine how to respond changing technologies across the economy.

Dr Karen Gregory, lecturer in digital sociology at the University of Edinburgh, will present new research on Deliveroo drivers’ responses to their experience of work, where established trade unions have had limited success.

She said: “It is brave of the STUC to raise these long-term questions about the future of work and trade unionism.

“Unions need to understand the reasons that workers take on the risks of self-driven work, as well as the ways that algorithms and data harvesting allow ever more control of work and schedules.

“As workers get to grip with these new conditions, new forms of union solidarity will develop in sectors where trade unions traditionally have had little foothold.”

Roz Foyer, the chairwoman of the STUC organising group, said the conference would also address the impact of technological change for women workers.

She said: “As automation erodes jobs traditionally done by women, like catering and cashier work, research suggests that new jobs are likely to be created in sectors dominated by men.

“Already, there are fewer women qualified to take STEM jobs and there is a risk that artificial intelligence hard-wires sexism into the hidden algorithms that are used for appointing staff and allocating roles.

“Just as equality reps are there to make sure workplaces are free from discrimination, union branches need to understand the biases and assumptions which are hidden within data-driven performance targets and digital management systems.

“That’s why it makes sense to build up the tactics to ensure that new technologies do not leave workers voiceless and insecure.”

Another speaker at the event, professor of work and employment studies at the University of Strathclyde Phil Taylor, praised the conference as a way to “start the conversations at workplace level about how union branches can push back against the new workplace tyranny”.

He added: “Technologically facilitated modes of control are now the mainstream, far beyond the gig economy.

“Targets, and constant performance management offensives are bearing down on many millions of workers – not least in higher education itself, where metrics, metrics, metrics abound.”

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