Artificial Intelligence and Workers’ Rights

The Establishment of Workers’ Rights

The concept of workers’ rights was introduced in order to ensure protection of workers across the globe. Adopted in 1998, the ILO declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work promotes policies and institutions to ensure equity and eradication of poverty. The declaration encompasses a wide range of provisions from ensuring freedom of association among workers to prohibiting forced labour and discrimination of workers. Despite these mandates, workers’ rights violations occur around the globe with reports stating that the most common breaches are denial to join a trade union, collectively bargain and carry out industrial action. The 2020 ITUC Global Rights Index showed that 

i. The worst countries for workers rights are found in the Middle East and North Africa. In these regions, ongoing conflict and insecurity affect workers’ access to their rights due to breakdown of the rule of law

ii. 85% of countries violated the right to strike and banned demonstrations by workers.

iii. 80% of countries violated the right to collectively bargain by setting up obstacles to joining unions and failing to negotiate appropriately with workers’ representatives 

iv. 74% of countries prevented workers from joining or establishing trade unions 

v. In 72% of countries, workers have restricted access to justice with arbitrary arrests and detentions of trade union leaders occurring in 61 countries in 2020

These violations of workers rights around the globe have been found to greatly affect the quality of life of workers and their families. Inability to negotiate for adequate pay and protection from work hazards as well as vulnerability to abuse from employers negatively impacts the lives of workers and affects job satisfaction.

AI and Workers’ Rights

The question of whether AI will improve or worsen the situation of workers has been the subject of much debate. Much focus has already been placed on the possibility of AI taking over jobs and leading to massive layoffs of workers, especially in skilled industries. Human biases may also sometimes become evident in AI systems, as exemplified by claims of discrimination based on facial recognition used by hiring applications. AI systems may be considered free of blame in situations where they harm workers, thus allowing employers to escape punishment for potential abuses. In Finland, where work directed by an algorithm is designated as self employment, food couriers assigned to work by a platform company suffered poor working conditions with limited knowledge of how the algorithm assigned shifts. On the other hand, several opportunities have also been found for AI to improve work experience and prioritize optimal working conditions.

i. Algorithm based management can allow more flexible work hours and promote autonomy. This could better enable remote work and allow workers to personalize and determine their own working environment.

ii. If monitoring devices are introduced with transparency, the activity of workers can be used to detect stress and burn out and recommend time off or support for workers

iii. More proactive application of AI can combat bias rather than promote it. Applications capable of discerning discrimination according to race and sex by recognising stereotypical language have been demonstrated. 

iv. The use of new technologies can help to overcome obstacles that employees face in reporting abuse and violations by employers, thus helping to address wrongful practices soon after they occur.

v. Conversational AI agents are being used to respond to workers’ questions  about their rights and to direct more complex questions to human responders 

vi. AI can also help to map workers in industries without a shared physical workplace such as domestic workers. Doing this helps to conduct conversations and share experiences that can aid organization of workers.

Although there are several concerns regarding how AI can further worsen the already precarious situation of workers’ rights, it is clear that many of these systems can equally be put to good use and improve the conditions of workers globally. If AI systems are used to connect workers to one another and to educate workers on their rights, they can become efficient tools of organisation and empower workers to form and manage unions for the advancement of their rights. 


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