Workers at risk of being hired and fired by algorithms, union warns
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Artificial Intelligence

“Widespread” worker discrimination is likely unless new laws are introduced to plug “huge gaps” in the regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace, a report from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has warned.

The new report finds that employment law is failing to keep pace with the rapid expansion of workplace AI which risks workers becoming powerless to challenge “inhuman” forms of automated performance management.

“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,” said the report’s authors, Robin Allen QC and Dee Masters of the AI Law Consultancy and Cloisters.

The report highlights how the use of AI has been accelerated by the covid-19 pandemic, with technologies now making “high-risk, life-changing” decisions about workers’ lives.

AI decisions include day-to-day line management, performance reviews, shift allocation, disciplinary action, or redundancies. AI is also being used to analyse facial expressions, tone of voice, and accents to assess candidates’ suitability for roles.

Left unchecked, the report warns AI could lead to greater discrimination with workers in the gig economy being particularly at risk.

“This is a fork in the road,” TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said. “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.”

There are clear red lines, which must not be crossed if work is not to become dehumanised

The report also warns of a lack of transparency over the use of AI by employers.

A recent TUC survey of more than 2,000 workers revealed that fewer than one in three respondents are consulted when new technology is introduced to their workplace.

The research, published in November 2020, also found that six in ten workers fear that, unless carefully regulated, AI could increase unfair treatment in the workplace.

The TUC has issued a joint call to tech companies, employers, and the UK government to support legal reforms for the ethical use of AI at work.

The proposed reforms include a duty on employers to consult unions on the use of “high risk” AI in the workplace and a right for workers to have a human review of AI decisions.

The TUC has also called on the government to make amendments to the UK General Data Protection Regulation and the Equality Act to guard against discriminatory algorithms, and legislate for workers’ right to disconnect.

“Used properly, AI can change the world of work for good. Used in the wrong way it can be exceptionally dangerous,” said Allen QC and Masters. “There are clear red lines, which must not be crossed if work is not to become dehumanised.

“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.”