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Report proposes new rights to protect workers from ‘unfair, unaccountable and uncaring’ algorithms

In today’s rapidly evolving workplace, a report by the Institute of Employment Rights raises alarms about a pressing issue: the rise of algorithmic management and its threat to workers’ rights. As algorithms increasingly direct the daily activities of employees, from warehouse staff to drivers, concerns mount over the erosion of job quality and the infringement on personal freedoms. The pandemic has only accelerated this shift, with employers keen to exert control over remote workforces.

A report published by the Institute of Employment Rights says that algorithmic management threatens to degrade workers’ rights and conditions and that current protections in the law are inadequate in the face of technological change.

More and more workers are being managed by algorithms, from warehouse staff who carry handheld devices that issue instructions and track their movements, to drivers who can be issued with a ‘log off’ penalty if they fail to comply with rules regarding cancellation and acceptance of tasks. The use of such systems accelerated during the pandemic as employers sought to monitor, manage and control newly remote workforces.

The report sets out three areas in which algorithmic management impinges on workers: worker voice, quality of work and working conditions, and workers’ human rights.

The report highlights several ways algorithmic management reduces the quality of work including the intensification of pace of work; a reduction in autonomy and deskilling of labour; and increased control exercised over the workforce due to constant monitoring and evaluation.

This systematic collection of data also affects our right to privacy. Systems have also been known to make biased and discriminatory decisions affecting workers’ right to equality and non-discrimination – a hiring algorithm had marked applicants down if their CVs contained the word ‘women’s’.

The report sets out how current regulation falls short when protecting workers from these threats, including in legislation around collective bargaining, health and safety, data protection, equality and unfair dismissal.

The new protections set out in the report include the requirement for systems to be deployed in a manner consistent with workers’ human rights; the prohibition on certain practices deemed to be ‘automatically unfair’; and the right to have a human explain and review decisions taken or supported by an algorithmic system.

To enforce these rights, the report calls for a specialist regulator to be set up, and for any company that develops or sells algorithmic management systems that breach employment law to face joint liability alongside the implementing organisation.

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