A group of MPs has criticised the government for failing to have a long-term plan for responding to changes in the world of work.
In a report, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) select committee warned that technological changes could have an uneven impact on different groups of workers, and has urged the government to “be more proactive in planning ahead” to avoid people being excluded from jobs or workers’ protection.
It said young workers, disabled people and those from some ethnic minorities were at particular risk of being disadvantaged by technological advancements, and called for the government to create a long-term strategy to make sure existing inequalities weren’t exacerbated.
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“Deep-seated trends were already driving labour market inequalities. The pandemic has hit fast forward on them,” said Stephen Timms, Labour MP and chair of the committee. “As we emerge, automation and new technologies will continue to transform both how people work and the skills they need to succeed.”
He added that the UK faced a digital skills shortage unless the DWP “adopts a laser-like focus on helping people get the right training they need for every stage of their career”.
The report is the first to come from the committee’s inquiry, launched in May last year, into the DWP’s preparedness for changes to the world of work.
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In the report, the committee called on the government to collect more real-time data on how quickly employers were adopting new technology, arguing that the current lack of data “makes it difficult to track the impact that change is having on the number, nature and quality of jobs”.
It also warned that technology could have an adverse impact on workers’ rights and wellbeing, and called on the government to urgently commit to introducing an employment bill; something that was previously promised but was a notable omission in this year’s Queen’s Speech at the start of the year.
Looking at how the coronavirus pandemic has changed working practices, the committee also said the government’s Kickstart and Restart schemes to help people back into work and reduce unemployment needed to work for disabled people, as well as other groups who had lost out during the pandemic.
“Those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic need particular support to get back on their feet, so the government must make sure that its new employment schemes are reaching the right people, with specific help for disabled people,” said Timms.
A government spokesperson said its Plan for Jobs scheme, launched last year to create new jobs, is helping people across the country to retrain, get into work, and develop skills. “We will continue to work across government as we address the challenges, and seize the opportunities, presented by the changing world of work.”
The government added that the employment bill would include measures to protect people who are low paid and in the gig economy.
Commenting on the report, Fiona Camenzuli, people and organisation network leader at PwC, said many of the jobs lost to the pandemic were in industries most prone to automation, meaning they were unlikely to return. She warned that, while upskilling could reduce social inequality, unless there was proper access to training it could end up doing the opposite.
“While automation and technological disruption are inevitable, we need to ensure that the net results for the workforce are positive so that society is able to reap the rewards. Not everyone needs to be able to write code, but they do need to understand how technology will impact them and how their skills can be put to best use,” she said.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, added that the committee was right to call out the need to improve opportunities for disabled people through the Kickstart and Restart schemes.
He added that there also needed to be much more engagement with employers around the existing voluntary disability data reporting framework to help firms improve how they recruit, manage and develop disabled people.
“More employers should be ensuring that line managers are aware of their responsibilities around making reasonable adjustments; these are often perfectly achievable, such as providing flexibility over working patterns, and can make a big difference,” he said.