Caroline Flint

Standing up for Don Valley.

"Should we fear the Machines?" - my speech 25 September 2018

My speech to the Community Union/Fabian Society Fringe meeting entitled "Should we Fear the Machines? Opportunities and Challenges of Technological Change for Workers" - Labour Conference 25 September 2018.

We need to prepare for the rise of the robots.

One view is that robots will lead to mass unemployment – and technology will bring about capitalism’s collapse.

A kind of techie Trotskyism.

Another view is that robots will enable us all to have a guaranteed minimum income and most of us can work a 20 hour week.

A kind of Scandi Utopia.

So a 20 hour week or 20 million unemployed?  What a choice!

I don’t believe either is likely.

David Blunkett once said: “Half the jobs we will do in thirty years’ time have not been invented yet.”

He said that just at the time mobile phones were emerging.

We did not know then that hundreds of thousands of people would work supporting apps.  That 3 million jobs would be created in telecommunications.

But we have learned that the robots cannot replace the educators; the carers and nurses; the creative professions, the customer service problem solver. 

But, too often, we do not value those human skills as specialist skills – we should.

How often, when people have a problem with their online banking, their online order, or a piece of technology – it is a human intervention that resolves it, not a machine.

One other aspect of the rise of technology, is that of accountability.

Whether it is an online giant or a coffee company, as transactions become electronic, as corporations make internal transfers across borders, the payment of taxes on their revenue looks increasingly optional.

Increasingly discretionary.

Politics cannot allow that to happen. 

Which is why the UK, the EU, the OECD are all taking steps to crack down on corporate tax avoidance and lack of transparency.

Finally, robots will be important for improving productivity; just as technology has in every generation.

So our challenge is to build a workforce ready for the future jobs; not pine for those jobs made obsolete.

I talked with union reps, employees and managers at a local manufacturer in my constituency.

This firm was investing millions in new technology at the same time as it had 40 employees completing new training at its in-house Learning centre.

So the challenge was moving employees from packers, to controllers, to decision-makers.

One of my firms is spending 20 million on new equipment.  They are a leading independent manufacturer of kitchens. But they will double production and add forty per cent to the workforce, dramatically increasing productivity.  And incidentally, they have over 300 staff and 97% are local workers living within a few miles of their factory.

Also, should we not be incentivising the use of technology in areas where we shouldn’t be using people anymore.

Within a decade, most crops will be able to be picked by intelligent machines, not by seasonal farm workers living in metal cabins.

Should we not welcome this, and encourage farming to move forward.

Finally, in the GIG economy, we need to bring these growing communities together – to offer professional union support to many who work part-time or free-lance within this growing sector.

And it is unions like Community, ahead of this curve, and understanding the experience of those workers, who will add value and security to their lives in the age of the machine.





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