The right to work: undermined by technological advancements?

“I read the news today oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade…” which recently tends to be a entrepreneur who has made billions from a tech start-up employing a handful of people. These success stories are usually accompanied by reports of a company downsizing, rationalizing, restructuring, consolidating, streamlining or one of many ingenious euphemisms used to soften the news of job losses. The workers are always the first to feel the slice of the austerity cleaver. The business is butchered to provide maximum profit for its shareholders with its employees consigned to the offal pile; leaving a lean, mean, money making machine.

Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment

Often automation is a cause of the job losses or the positions get outsourced abroad, where unions and workers rights are scarce and they can be exploited with criminally poor pay and working conditions. The human right to work is stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 23.1 ‘Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment’. It is a human right under threat and governments across the world need to pay more attention to it.

The past

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution certain jobs have become obsolete due to the introduction of new technology, and there have been those unhappy with these changes, mainly the people losing their jobs. The term Luddite is now commonly used to describe someone who is a technophobe. The term originates from the Luddite rebellion that sprang up in the industrial counties of England; it began in 1811 and ended in 1816 when it was brutally suppressed by British troops. The Luddites were fighting against the introduction of spinning frames and power looms into the big factories and textile mills, as they were threatening their jobs and trades. They would meet on the moors at night and then descend on the mills and factories, destroying the new machinery that was having such a devastating effect on their lives and communities.

We are being afflicted with a new disease…namely, technological unemployment

In response to widespread unemployment, in the 1930s, caused by the Great Depression Britain’s eminent economist John Maynard Keynes said “We are being afflicted with a new disease…namely, technological unemployment”; this was due to machines taking over jobs at a quicker rate than the economy could produce them. Keynes correctly forecasted that this was a temporary effect caused by the current poor state of the economy and would be remedied as the economy improved. Karl Marx was also concerned about industrial machine use in a capitalist system describing it as ‘dead labour, that dominates, and pumps dry, living labour-power’ and ‘… dead labour, that vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, …’

The replacement of human labour by new industrial methods and machinery has progressed at a steady rate in the industrialised/western world, with the same devastating effects on the people losing their jobs, but in the long term society has benefitted due to more highly skilled, higher paid and less physically arduous jobs being created to deal with the increased productivity and trade provided by mechanisation.

We are now experiencing a new revolution, the silicon revolution, which is having profound effects on our society and every aspect of our lives, these effects will not all be positive. The silicon revolution is affecting jobs by the implementation of automation and computerisation, and again people are suffering due to the loss of livelihoods, but this time the long term effect on society may be negative. There are a growing number of observers who do not fear or hate technology but fear the negative effects technology can have on the individual and society if used inappropriately. The Luddite tag is often attached to these observers who express concern or oppose the introduction of new technology, and it holds the connotation of stupidity as most think it futile to resist the onward march of the machine. Maybe that onward march is inevitable, but shouldn’t we at least try to steer it in a direction that suits the majority of humanity?

The present

Andrew Keen is one of the present day commentators on technology who is worried about its effect on the job market. In his book ‘The Internet Is Not The Answer’ he explains how the globalised network provided by the World Wide Web and the internet promotes a winner take all environment promoting the dominance of single companies in specific online sectors. The names of these companies are ubiquitous today: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft are the biggest names and the amounts of capital they are accumulating are beyond the dreams of King Midas. Despite the economic size of these companies their employee numbers are minuscule compared to traditional companies. Google, who had a market valuation in 2014 of over $400 billion, employs only 46,000 people, whereas an Industrial giant like General Motors with its market value around $55 billion employs more than 200,000 people. That means Google employs a quarter of the number of GM’s workers despite being seven times larger than GM.

The online retailer Amazon has had a huge impact on the publishing industry. In the mid 1990s there were 4000 bookstores in the USA, now there is half that amount. It is a similar story in the UK where in 2005 there were around 1500 book stores; by 2014 this had dropped by a third to less than a thousand. Amazon’s virtual monopoly on book sales has allowed them to chase smaller publishing companies out of business if they did not agree to Amazon’s strong demands on bill payment and pricing. It is not only publishing that has suffered due to Amazon’s online retail dominance. The US Institute of Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) conducted a study in 2013 showing that conventional retailers employ 47 people for every $10 million in sales, whereas Amazon employs only 14 people to generate the same amount of sales revenue. The ILSR concluded that Amazon is a job destroyer rather than a job provider having caused the loss of 27,000 jobs in the US economy in 2012.

Global capitalism has turned the internet into the most efficient mass and personal marketing tool ever created

The capitalist economic system has been greatly enhanced by the World Wide Web and internet, and has become the dominant system globally. Global capitalism has turned the internet into the most efficient mass and personal marketing tool ever created, with the majority of revenue raised by internet companies coming from advertising. Due to most big companies being floated on stock markets, the pursuit of profits becomes paramount and there is a constant drive to increase them by cutting costs. Unfortunately the biggest operating cost for businesses is usually wages, hence the constant pressure to replace human workers with technological solutions. The initial costs of technology implementations are high but are soon recouped by the increased productivity and lower costs to the business.

This super-connected global capitalism is becoming increasingly efficient at concentrating the wealth in the elite top 1% of society while impoverishing the rest. According to a study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics the top 1% of income earners in the USA earned around 10% of the total USA pre-tax income between 1950 and 1980; this had risen to 20% in 2013. In the same time frame the share of total US worker compensation as a percentage of GDP has declined from 58% in 1970 to 53% in 2013. Where the king of capitalism leads, the rest of the globe is sure to follow.

The dominance of global capitalism aided by technological innovations and the decline of union power has lead to many jobs in the west suffering from casualisation, job insecurity, low pay, and long variable hours severely impacting family/social life. And when, sooner rather than later, they lose these jobs they are forced to jump through hoops of ever-increasing difficulty to claim inadequate social security payments and sub-standard training. The long and hard fight for workers rights is gradually being eroded in western industrialised countries, as they try to compete with other countries that haven’t yet developed these rights. Guy Standing described this emerging class as the precariat in his book ‘The Precariat – The New Dangerous Class’. The current Conservative government in the UK may be using the decreased unemployment figures in the UK to show success, but the majority of these are prime precariat jobs which do not agree with the clause in the UDHR Article 23.1 stating everyone’s right to ‘… just and favourable conditions of work…’. This is not the way to build the high tech economy which is the UK government’s stated aim.

Is your profession safe?

The UK is trying to provide a high tech economy for Britain by encouraging increasing numbers of students into tertiary education and thus providing a highly educated workforce capable of challenging jobs. But in the world job market it is not just the labour-intensive repetitive jobs that are being automated (a well known example being car manufacturing) but also jobs that were until recently thought beyond the scope of automation, involving dexterity, identification, problem solving, design and decision making.

In ‘The Glass Cage’ author Nicholas Carr highlights the jobs currently undertaken by well-educated professionals that are under threat, and also the negative effects on human skills that over reliance on automation engender. He pays particular attention to aviation which initially was a seat of the pants experience needing the pilots’ full attention and physical/mental abilities. The cockpits of early large passenger aircraft had places for five highly skilled and paid professionals: two pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and a radio operator. The steadily increasing levels of automation have led to the present situation where there are only the two pilots left in the cockpit, and due to the autopilot they generally only have hands on the controls for a few minutes during landing and take-off. Reliance on the autopilot has reduced the skill levels of pilots leading to crashes caused by pilot error in emergency situations; this has lead to autopilots in some airliners being able to overrule the flight input commands of the pilot. The remuneration for pilots has declined significantly in this time, and there are now calls for the presence of just one pilot and even pilotless planes due to the success of pilotless military drones.

The desire is to drive the cost of executing trades to its lowest point – this means automating the system and getting rid of the traders

The increasing use of IT systems and investment algorithms in New York has led to a drop of people employed as security dealers and traders: in 2000 they numbered 150,000; by 2013 this had dropped to 100,000. A bank analyst said “The desire is to drive the cost of executing trades to its lowest point – this means automating the system and getting rid of the traders”.


The recent gains in computing power, enabling learning algorithms, greater processing speeds, and big data analysis is also having profound effects on medicine. Doctors are now using programmes much more often to guide their thoughts, helping in actual diagnosis of disease and predicting whether a patient should be taking a particular drug regime or another treatment modality. The use of surgical robots is on the rise, with surgeons able to operate them remotely. These increases in efficiency are unlikely to create more jobs, and could lead to a slower uptake of new trainee doctors, maybe at lower wages as the reliance on technology degrades their skills and enables faster training time.

Everyone by now is familiar with self-service automated tills being introduced in supermarkets, and the frustrations that often ensue when trying to operate them. From my own observations I have noted one shop worker usually tending about six of these tills. The supermarkets are insisting the introduction of these automated tills are not reducing the number of jobs at the moment, and I suspect any surplus employees from the tills are being re-tasked on to picking orders for home delivery, but how long before the order picking is automated? And it has been a while since I interacted with a human librarian as the self-service automated librarians have taken precedence.

The future

The ubiquitous internet companies are extremely interested in the future, and they are spending their vast resources on making sure they play a prominent part in shaping and controlling that future. Google is investing heavily in the technology of the future. The Google car is now a common sight on the roads of California, and there are currently autonomous car trials underway in the UK. According to the UK’s Department of Transport statistics’ in April-June 2009 there were 871,000 people in total employed as bus and coach drivers, HGV drivers, van drivers and taxi, cab drivers and chauffeurs. That gives British business a hell of a lot of scope for increasing profits and reducing costs if autonomous vehicles are allowed to operate on UK roads; and the government seem pretty keen on that outcome.

Google is also investing heavily in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. In 2014 they acquired the AI startup company DeepMind for a sum of $500 million, and they are heavily invested in the development of quantum computing and have set up a joint lab with NASA to work with the D-wave 2, the most sophisticated quantum processor yet. Quantum computing, due to its ability to parallel process information (like the human brain), has the best chance of developing a true artificial intelligence, rather than the AI systems of today which rely on complex learning algorithms, large processing speeds and access to big data and are far from sentient. So if a company in the future is tasked with finding the right person for the job, why would they not choose a genius AI with no need for sleep, wages, always healthy, no family and probably able to do the physical and mental work of ten people in a day.

The rise in labour costs could lead to the loss of up to 85 million manufacturing jobs in China

And the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs abroad is just a reprieve for those positions. Many of the manufacturing jobs that were present in the industrialised West have steadily migrated to China which is now the manufacturing giant of the world. China is now facing increased manufacturing labour costs, forecast to rise from $350/person/month in 2010 to $1000/person/month by the end of the decade. To counter this rise in costs they are investing heavily in robotics and the figures are staggering. The rise in labour costs could lead to the loss of up to 85 million manufacturing jobs in China to other countries within the region, predicts Justin Lin, the former chief economist of the World Bank. The largest producer of Apple products in China, Foxconn, has vowed to replace manufacturing workers with one million robots over a period of three years. In Liaoning province there are plans to construct a robot industrial base, by 2017, to develop robots and other technology with a planned annual output of 50 billion Yuan (around $8 billion). Robots-replace-humans copy

In his latest book, Andrew Keen’s solution to the problem of the negative effects of technology on society can only be brought about by legislation implemented by the European Union or the United States Congress. The answer is an “accountable and strong government” that can break up the internet quasi-monopolies. Nicholas Carr suggests a more human-centred approach to new technology, where the machine enhances the humans skills and experience rather than replacing them. However, Carr in ‘The Glass Cage’ acknowledges the problem global capitalism presents when he quotes from the ergonomics pioneer David Meister on the course of technological progress. This, he concludes “is tied to the profit motive; consequently it has little appreciation of the human”

Technological revolutions of the past such as farming, money, the printing press and the Industrial Revolution have always caused upheavals within society. Society has always managed to adapt and incorporate these new technologies and as a result built a better and stronger society and state. The cultural historian Leo Marx describes how, during the Enlightenment, technology and science were seen as tools to enable political reform and to build a better society; therefore progress was measured in political and social improvements. In an article published in 1987 called ‘Does Improved Technology mean progress?’, he concludes that technology could mean progress if we are willing to answer the next question “progress towards what? What is it we want our new technologies to accomplish? What do we want beyond such immediate limiting goals as achieving efficiencies, decreasing costs, and eliminating the troubling human element from our workplaces? In the absence to answers to these questions technological improvement may very well turn out to be incompatible with genuine, that is to say social progress”

The onward march of technology can improve social progress, we just need the political and economic system in place to ensure that it does. Karl Marx could see the possible emancipation promise of “Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour”. And John Maynard Keynes could see a time when due to improvements in science, and technology replacing human labour, man’s problem would be “how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure”.

The right to work, is it being undermined by technological advancements and global capitalism? My answer has to be a resounding yes. But it is not the technology that is at fault, it is providing us with tools that could greatly enhance society and human existence. It is the fault of global capitalism’s use of technology to reduce the costs and inefficiencies of human labour, and then to concentrate the wealth produced by such technology into the pockets of the lucky few. As the silicon revolution evolves at a phenomenal rate, it is being increasingly controlled by a neo-liberal elite whose selfish philosophy is detrimental to real progress in human society. The western Industrialised democracies are stuck in a political quagmire, we are in desperate need of a democracy mark 2; a new political revolution that can harness the silicon revolution to benefit all of humanity.

First Published in the May 2015 edition of Contributoria.


  1. Sean Danaher -

    This is a guest publication from Conrad Bower. It may take a bit longer than usual to approve and reply to comments as in the first instance our policy is to give the author of the article an immediate right to reply.

  2. Nile -

    What will happen to the producer-consumer model of Capitalism?

    Wageless workers are not consumers; nor do they accumulate capital. Who will pay to keep the robots running, or invest in their replacement, when no-one has a wage from productive employment?

    Or even a wage from unproductive employment: from what, or from whom, will rent-seekers extract their rents when there are no producers, save wageless machines owned by capitalists too powerful to pursue for their arrears?

    1. Conrad Bower -

      The producer-consumer model of capitalism is becoming extremely unbalanced and needs to be replaced before it collapses. I fear a collapse of the system may be the only stimulus strong enough to promote a widely and strongly held consensus for change. But I live in hope that people will come to their senses and promote incremental changes towards a better economic model.

  3. mrnbfaethedee -

    The ‘right to work’ as an absolute is simply a natural (though benign) response to allowing ourselves to be tied into the wage-slavery of the co-opted or corrupt capitalist democracies we live in.
    In the same way that the financial benefits of a modern, productive society need to be distributed more equitably, so does the ability of technology to remove some of the need for human labour.
    As a bunch of humans living together under a common set of rules, we need to be using our technology hand in hand with new ideas about our own roles to our greatest mutual benefit as *the entire point of society*.

    The more that automated operations are to replace labour, the more imperative it is to remember that *all* business operates within and at the sufference of human societies – not vice-versa as is increasingly implied. The ‘wealth’ created by all operations within society needs to be redistributed equitably throughout society; with more redundancy of labour, that means redistributing more to individuals regardless of their contribution to labour.

    Unfortunately, even if we could find the radical financial/economic mechanisms to reduce the average labour burden, we haven’t considered the affordances we’d want to offer in support of more ‘leisure’ time. The lives and fates of many who have no employment in our society is a testament to our failure as a society to provide any significant mechanisms for positive or purposeful existence, except as an economic asset.

    Reduction of the *need* to participate in the labour force should be seen as a positive development to modern technological societies.
    We need to start working towards it by reasserting common rights to societal wealth, and preparing societal affordances for human focused non-labour activities.

    1. Conrad Bower -

      “As a bunch of humans living together under a common set of rules, we need to be using our technology hand in hand with new ideas about our own roles to our greatest mutual benefit as *the entire point of society*.”

      I totally agree with you mrnbfaethedee. Reducing long working hours would also give significant benefits in reducing stress induced mental illness in workers.

  4. Mark Crown -

    A really good contribution that I find myself agreeing with.

    The concept of universal basic income as I first heard it from Guy Standing makes sense. But we do need to set limits on automation in my view. Automated road vehicles? No.

    However my main concern is the propensity for Malthusian influences higher up the socio-economic ladder. By not realising UBI and reducing state support for the unemployed (making things harder people) I fear that our country is nudging us into not producing any more people by putting folk off from having children.

    A world that will only benefit the rich.

    1. Conrad Bower -

      I am a supporter of the introduction of a universal basic income, the trials testing it have generally produced positive results. It would remove the poverty trap and enhance peoples ability to take irregular work, which is ever more common these days in the gig economy.

      I recently attended a conference in Salford on a proposal for a world basic income, which could eliminate extreme poverty globally, possibly by just re-allocating the exisiting aid budgets directly to the poor using mobile phone technology; which would circumvent the corruption occuring in the institutions receiving the aid. Although I think the WBI would not solve the inequality issues in richer countries, which would need their own versions of UBI.

      The reduction of state support for the unemployed and disabled is a national disgrace. The UK came in for sever criticism from the UN report on human rights for its treatment of people claiming social security, particulalry the diasabled. Not only do they have to cope with a reduction in money, they are also forced to continually jump through hoops to claim that money, and face having their money stopped for not jumping on demand. I disagree with the limiting of full social security payments to 2 children, but I am not sure it will put people off having children.

  5. Peter May -

    Eric Hobsbawm, the historian, wrote in an 1952 essay, ‘The Machine Breakers’;
    “The luddites were not against technology as such. They were against those forms of technology that mitigated against communal well being. They saw that if you unleash this thing, it will untie all the social fabrics that make life meaningful for people.”
    So it is really just the same as now. The benefits of the technologies are being siphoned up to an elite and not properly shared.
    The idea we should start with, is not the right of all of us to work, but the right of all of us to work LESS.

    1. Conrad Bower -

      Hi Peter,

      I have much sympathy for the Luddites cause, which I didn’t really get across in the article. Maybe due to a subliminal fear of being tagged as a Luddite.

      I think a shorter working week/day is something we should definitely investigating more in the UK. It will be interesting to see the outcome of this study in Finland, reducing an 8hr to 6hr day:

  6. Mark Crown -

    ‘The idea we should start with, is not the right of all of us to work, but the right of all of us to work LESS’.

    Now that is wisdom from Mr May.

    I remember a time when we were told that technology would give us more leisure time in the future. Somehow that message has not got through to the upper echelons of economic society who tend to see themselves as doing ‘Gods work’ and are therefore more worthy of existing than others. In order to enjoy leisure time you need to have money to spend. If work does not exist to provide income………where will income come from?

    Besides the spectre of Malthusian thinking dominating this debate (simply that those driving technology to reduce costs may be very unwilling to fund those not doing any work as we know it and may seek to purposefully create conditions to control the birth rate) , the other issue is how to limit the gains made by the investor class from technology. The only way to do this is for courageous states to repudiate or excise out of their laws the principle that the investors rights come before any one else – even a sovereign country. What could replace it is an impact system that costs the social impact of technology and diverts some of the gains back into society to offset the negative consequences. This would also ensure that the financial gains were not too narrowly distributed to the top 1%?

    Another thing we could do to offset the loss of traditional work is to start to recognise stuff that is now considered to be volunteering or home or family building/maintaining and get people paid for that. It would be a way of valuing a wider range of contribution to society that is long overdue.

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