The Amazonian Era: How algorithmic systems are eroding good work

What you need to know:

  • Breakdown of work into irregular shifts, and the competition introduced into firms, degrades the role of work as a source of community and connection.
  • 49% of workers surveyed felt less fulfilled by their work following changes made in the last five years, 55.7% felt less valued by their employer, and 38% felt changes made to their job in the last five years had made them feel less valued by society.
  • For technology to drive recovery and prosperity, technology must be redirected to work for people and the public interest. This demands a ‘human-centred’ approach to technology and a renewed focus on making work better.

This report from the Institute for the Future of Work, funded by Trust for London and the Open Society Foundation, explores the new transformation of work of living in an 'Amazonian Era' and what this means for the wider world of work.

The ethos, practices and business models that emerged within the platform economy have been packaged up and made available for download to the furthest corners of our essential services, reshaping the lives of millions of workers across Britain.

Key insights

  • The ethos, practices and business models of the gig economy are being embedded across many essential sectors without understanding for profound, adverse impacts on working people’s lives.
  • Algorithmic systems are being used across the economy to control fundamental aspects of work. ‘Work’ is being redefined in narrow terms that can be quantified and measured by an algorithm.
  • This approach is segregating the workforce, intensifying work and eroding the value of human skill, judgment and agency of the people undertaking it.
  • Work has become a site of experimentation in changing human behaviour and relationships through needless acquisition and control of human data. Technology developers report that employers are experimenting with human data acquired through invasive means ‘just because they can.’
  • Routes to enable understanding, involvement and redress are unknown, non-existent, or not working.
  • This short-term approach to the development and deployment of technology is eroding Good Work in many essential sectors. This is not sustainable, has significant costs and undermines endeavours to promote wellbeing and prosperity across Britain.

Key recommendations

To redirect technology to work for people and the public interest, Good Work must be at the centre of our new social contract. This means a sharp focus on creating and prioritising better work across government departments, regulators, industry and civil society. The report recommends:

Protect Good Work

  • Introduce an Employment Bill with a dedicated Schedule of ‘Day 1’ Digital Rights.
  • The Government should initiate an Accountability for Algorithms Act in the public interest which will require early algorithmic impact assessment and adjustment when adverse impacts are identified. Further detail is outlined in IFOW’s ‘Mind the Gap’ report.
  • New disclosure obligations should require regular reporting on the fact, purpose and outcomes of algorithmic systems shaping access, terms and quality of work.
  • A joint regulatory forum led by by the Information Commissioner’s Office should be established with new powers to create certification schemes, impose terms and issue statutory guidance on use of algorithmic systems at work.

Collaborate for Good Work

  • The Cabinet office should initiate a collaborative, cross-government Work 5.0 Strategy, underpinned by the human-centred design and use of technology. This forward looking Strategy should be developed with industry, unions and civil society.
  • Good Work standards should be embedded across local and national Government departments, recovery and levelling up packages, new infrastructure projects and procurement.
  • Collective bargaining covering use of algorithmic systems and new collective rights for involvement should be permitted. Anti-union laws must be repealed.
  • Employee contracts, collective agreements and technology agreements should include explicit agreement about use of data and algorithmic systems shaping access, terms and quality of work.

Innovate for Good Work

  • The UK’s AI Strategy should be principles driven and human- centred, with human flourishing and wellbeing as the overarching goal. The role of Good Work to make this a success must be formally recognised and integrated.
  • New functions and funding streams for the AI Office Council, UK Research and Innovation and Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation should be introduced to ensure that the UK leads in the design and development of human-centred automation.
  • A new tech innovation Grand Challenge targeted at stimulating innovation in human-centred automation should be initiated to create better work.
  • The government should allocate funds and monitor progress in recovery and levelling up through the prism of Good Work, as outlined in IFOW’s Good Work Monitor (‘GWM’). Local compacts and
    pilots should be enabled for locally led innovation in human-centred automation, as proposed in the GWM.

Researching Good Work

  • Researching the of use and impact of automation technologies, and their impacts on work and welfare, should become a national priority.
  • The Equality and Human Rights Commission, Information Commissioner’s Office and civil society, including the Bar Pro Bono Unit, should prioritise test cases to establish, enforce and highlight the remits of existing protection of rights for workers under the GPDR, Equality Act and Health and Safety laws.
  • The Health and Safety Executive should investigate incidents and publish research and guidance on health risks from the intensification of work under management by algorithmic systems.
  • ONS should add new measurements for the adoption of automation technologies by firms and their impacts on work and workers, initially in their Annual Business Survey.