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TUC warns of gaps in British law over use of AI at work

The TUC has published a report warning of AI-powered discrimination against working people enabled by gaps in existing British employment law

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is warning that huge gaps exist in British law over the use of artificial intelligence (AI) at work, which will lead to discrimination and unfair treatment of working people.

A report produced for the TUC by employment rights lawyers Robin Allen QC and Dee Masters from the AI Law Consultancy says the rapid expansion of AI at work is outpacing existing employment law.

“This is a fork in the road,” said the TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady. “AI at work could be used to improve productivity and working lives. But it is already being used to make life-changing decisions about people at work – like who gets hired and fired.

“Without fair rules, the use of AI at work could lead to widespread discrimination and unfair treatment – especially for those in insecure work and the gig economy,” he added.

“Every worker must have the right to have AI decisions reviewed by a human manager. And workplace AI must be harnessed for good – not to set punishing targets and rob workers of their dignity,” said Grady.

The report’s authors, Allen and Masters, stated jointly: “The TUC is right to call for urgent legislative changes to ensure that workers and companies can both enjoy the benefits of AI. Used properly, AI can change the world of work for good. Used in the wrong way, it can be exceptionally dangerous.

“Workplace AI must be harnessed for good – not to set punishing targets and rob workers of their dignity”
Frances O’Grady, TUC

“There are currently huge gaps in British law when it comes to regulating AI at work. They must be plugged quickly to stop workers from being discriminated against and mistreated.

“Already, important decisions are being made by machines. Accountability, transparency and accuracy need to be guaranteed by the legal system through the carefully crafted legal reforms we propose. There are clear red lines, which must not be crossed if work is not to become dehumanised.”

The 115-page report, Technology managing people – the legal implications, says unless urgent new legal protections are put in place, workers will become increasingly vulnerable and powerless to challenge inhuman forms of AI performance management.

The authors use a working definition of AI as “the science of making machines smart”, a phrase coined by law professor Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius. At its core is the idea that machines might be made to work in the same way as humans, only faster, better and more reliably.

The TUC is calling on technology companies, employers and government to support a new set of legal reforms for the ethical use of AI at work.

It wants these reforms to include a legal duty on employers to consult trade unions on the use of “high-risk” and intrusive forms of AI in the workplace, and a legal right for all workers to have a human review of decisions made by AI systems so they can challenge decisions that are unfair and discriminatory.

It is also demanding amendments to the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR) and Equality Act to guard against discriminatory algorithms, as well as a legal right to “switch off” from work so people can create “communication-free” time in their lives.

In the report, the authors state: “It might be thought that these new technologies would be liberating for workers, and in some ways they can be. But … new technologies are encroaching significantly on workers’ private spheres over and above the proper limits of professional and working time. Increased digitisation, through AI and other forms of technology, is contributing to an ‘always-on’ culture in which employees are never completely free from work. There is a growing sense that employers are increasingly expecting their workforce to be easily contactable all times.”

The report highlights how the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the use of AI-powered technologies in ways that make “high-risk, life-changing” decisions about workers’ lives, including selecting candidates for interview, day-to-day line management, performance ratings, shift allocation and deciding who is disciplined or made redundant. 

The report warns that AI could lead to greater discrimination for workers in the gig economy. The TUC notes the example of Uber Eats, where a number of BAME couriers claim they have been fired because the company’s facial identification software is not capable of recognising their faces. Workers who had made thousands of deliveries and had 100% satisfaction ratings say they were suddenly removed from the platform with no recourse to a human manager to contest their sacking.

The TUC says that without the right to a human review of decisions, workers could be hired and fired entirely by algorithm.

For the “bosses’ union”, the CBI, Felicity Burch, director of innovation and digital, said: “AI has the potential to transform the workplace by automating repetitive tasks and giving employees more time to focus on decision-making, creativity and customer service.

“But it can also be used to make decisions that could be life-changing, from job interviews to informing performance reviews, so it’s crucial that the right legal framework is in place, from employment law to data protection.

“To help build public trust, businesses must continue to engage employees closely, invest in the right governance processes and embed a culture of life-long learning.”

Along with the report, the TUC is also publishing a manifesto for the fair and transparent use of AI at work.

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