Low-paid jobs at risk as coronavirus speeds up automation, report finds

Experts call for good work to be put ‘at the heart’ of economic recovery and urge employers to consult workers in decisions about new technology

The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the uptake of automation in the workplace, putting jobs at risk in the sectors that have been hit hardest, research has found.

A report by the Fabian Society and trade union Community warned that Covid-19 had sped up the pace of existing job disruption and dislocation, and that low-paid workers in sectors most affected by social restrictions faced a “double whammy” from the economic impact of the virus and increasing technological change.

It estimated 61 per cent of jobs furloughed in the first half of 2020 were in sectors already at high risk of automation, and that many of the roles affected by lockdown measures were unlikely to be brought back after Covid as consumers shift permanently towards online.

“Some people have seen unexpected improvements in the way they work this year. But those on low incomes have both been most likely to lose out in the short term and are at greater risk from the long-term consequences of the crisis,” the report said, adding that if technology was not implemented correctly it could lead to low-paid workers facing greater insecurity, increased surveillance, lower pay and wider inequality.

Commenting on the report, Hayfa Mohdzaini, senior research adviser at the CIPD, said HR needed to be involved in any decisions to invest in technology that might significantly affect the number of jobs or the nature of work. “It is important to consult employees early on the proposed changes,” she said.

“Our workplace technology survey found that employees who were consulted were more likely to agree with the benefits of the technology change and feel more confident in raising concerns. HR is well-placed to facilitate discussions with employees on job redesign, reskilling and minimising redundancies.”

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While the coronavirus crisis has disrupted almost everyone’s work life, Douglas White, head of advocacy at the Carnegie UK Trust, warned it was having a disproportionately negative effect on those already experiencing “poor-quality work” – jobs that were lower paid, were less secure and had more irregular hours. “[The virus is] both exposing and exacerbating existing inequality in access to good work,” he said.

White – who earlier this year edited a report on the virus's impact on the quality of work – said the government’s furlough support packages had created “unprecedented state intervention” in the labour market, and the UK could be missing an opportunity to push employers towards providing better-quality work by putting it “at the heart” of its response to the crisis and the economic recovery plan.

“If we’re thinking about future industrial strategy, where does good work fit within that? If we’re thinking about the response to the crisis and tackling the chronic low productivity in different sectors in the UK – tackling that is going to be important in response to the crisis – how do we build good work into that? How do we take the high road to workplace productivity?” he said.

Businesses also had a responsibility to think about these issues and involve their workforce in discussions about how to improve the quality of work, both during the outbreak and beyond, said White. “One of the other aspects of work quality is voice and representation,” he said. “How do we bring [workers] to the table, have a discussion and dialogue with them so they can be involved in finding the best solutions… rather than it being a set of terms simply being imposed.

“That’s a key process and there’s no reason that any business can’t do that.”

Alastair Loasby, digital champions lead at Business in the Community, added that it was unsurprising employees facing job cuts or returning from furlough might be worried, but echoed the need to engage with workers when introducing automation.

“By making employees the focus of transformation projects through strategic workforce planning, employee education, cultural change, effective communication and skills training, companies can get the benefits of technology without leaving their workers out in the cold,” Loasby said.