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UK needs long-term plan to tackle workplace automation, MPs warn

The Government needs to come up with a long-term plan to stop automation in the workplace having an uneven impact on different groups of workers, MPs have said.

A report published by the Work and Pensions Committee (WPC) warned that while it is not likely that new technology will lead to mass unemployment, the creation of new jobs and loss of others will be uneven across sectors and across different groups of workers.

The Covid-19 pandemic is reportedly speeding up the pace of automation in the workplace; a survey from the World Economic Forum last year found that 43 per cent of businesses said they would reduce their workforce due to technology integration.

The WPC said that younger people, disabled people, women, and people from some ethnic minorities are particularly at risk of missing out on jobs, and greater focus should be placed on retraining and reskilling.

The report also calls for the Government to bring forward its Employment Bill to protect the rising number of people in precarious forms of work, such as people on zero-hours contracts or working in the gig economy.

WPC chair Stephen Timms MP said: “Deep-seated trends were already driving labour market inequalities. The pandemic has hit fast-forward on them. As we emerge, automation and new technologies will continue to transform both how people work and the skills they need to succeed.

“The Government needs to plan now, to avoid large groups – younger workers, women, disabled people and those from some ethnic backgrounds – being left behind.

“Digital dexterity is going to be vital to every worker navigating the rapidly changing world of work, but a digital skills shortage is looming unless the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] adopts a laser-like focus on helping people get the right training they need for every stage of their career.

“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.”

The WPC said that new technology should be embraced in the workplace as it has the potential to enhance employees’ experience of work, for example by allowing for greater use of remote working and replacing more mundane tasks.

But it warned that there is also a risk the technology could have an adverse impact on workers’ rights and wellbeing and wants the definition of employment to be updated and clarified to ensure that workers enjoy the legal status that they are entitled to.

The Committee concluded that while it was vital for people who find themselves out of work to have access to a robust safety net, a Universal Basic Income would be extremely expensive and not target support at people who need it the most.

The Department for Work and Pensions should instead focus its efforts on ensuring that the value of benefit payments under the current system meets the basic needs of claimants, it said.

A Government spokesman said it was helping people to retrain and to develop the skills they need for the future through its Plan for Jobs.

“We will continue to work across Government as we address the challenges, and seize the opportunities presented by the changing world of work,” the spokesman said.

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