Technology, Work and Employment in the 21st Century


Automation, digitisation, artificial intelligence. We are on the brink of a new industrial revolution. I launched the Future of Work Commission last year as a response to this. The possibilities are endless - but so are the challenges.

The job of our expert Commissioners is to analyse these emerging trends, to understand the implications of new technology, and to make achievable policy recommendations about making the most of the opportunities presented.

Our first evidence session was held before Christmas and it was extremely positive. We talked in depth about the power of technology to augment the way people worked, and how re-skilling could help us adapt and take advantage of changes to our working world. 

​Recently, the Commission met for the second time. Matrix chambers kindly hosted a workshop for us on Technology, Work and Employment in the 21st Century, in association with the Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment, Leicester University. 

I, unfortunately, had to miss the session, and I was very sorry to do so – especially when I was briefed on the evidence presented. The commission heard presentations from Professor Ian Clark, Dr Kirsty Newsome, Dr Nik Hammer, Professor Caroline Lloyd, Professor Ewart Keep and Professor Peter Nolan.

One of the things their testimony made clear was that these aren't just issues for tomorrow. Comparatively simple technologies are making changes to the way we are working today. And these changes aren’t all good. They may even mean that more enlightened uses of technology are never introduced to some workplaces, because we are making it cheaper to exploit people instead. 

I don’t want to preempt the Commission’s report by going into detail on all of the presentations. But I do want to pick out the three themes that struck me the most strongly from the evidence presented:


Professor Ian Clark’s presentation reminded the commission that twenty years ago mechanical car washes were been a common feature of garages up and down the country. Now the majority of those machines lie idle, where they haven’t been removed entirely. In their place more than 20,000 small hand car washes have sprung up. They have a small number of employees, mainly migrant workers, who are paid significantly below the National Minimum Wage.

In this instance, technology is not destroying jobs. Cheap labour is displacing technology - machines are being scrapped and replaced by human workers because the cost of doing so is so low. Professor Clark described how this kind of employment has emerged since the financial crash of 2007/8. It’s low-skilled, it’s labour intensive - and crucially, because of its informal nature, it’s completely unprotected by any workers’ rights legislation.

He noted that it’s being enabled by poor regulation – and poor enforcement of what regulations there are. He also made the thought-provoking point that culturally, our tolerance of informal employment – our evident willingness to use, for example, a cheap hand carwash - means that in many sectors, there is no economic case for tech-driven development.


This theme – poor regulation and poor enforcement of regulation within the informal economy - was also a major part of Professor Nik Hammer’s case study, which concerned the re-shoring of clothes manufacture in Britain.

Prof Hammer described how, having gone into major decline from the 1990s into the 2000s, clothes production soared after 2008. Production in the East Midlands rose most rapidly, increasing by 75% from 2013 to 2015 alone. In 2015, David Cameron praised this development in the House of Commons, calling it ‘very good news’.

This rise has been fuelled by the ‘fast fashion’ model. High street chains or online boutiques now offer cheap copies of catwalk trends within weeks or even days of the originals being unveiled. Even in today’s hyperconnected world, global supply chains can’t deliver to that schedule - hence jobs previously offshored to places like Bangladesh returning to Britain. But that speedy turnaround comes at a price. Just not one paid by the people buying the clothes.

As Channel 4’s Dispatches programme would go on to highlight later in the week – Nik described how 75% of the reshored jobs paid significantly below the minimum wage, with the average worker paid just £3 an hour. Workers often had no contracts, no rights, and no trade union presence in their substandard, make-shift factories. Underpayment was common, with no recourse to complain or recover their unpaid wages. Some staff were told by their employer to make their wage up to the minimum level by claiming benefits. 

Clearly these working practices break the law. Yet 97% of these workers had seen some form of inspection in their workplace. So what’s going on?

Tellingly, those inspections were made by representatives from the clothing brands. There has been what Nik called a strategic withdrawal of the state in this area. That’s compounded by the fact these workers aren’t unionised – the checks and balances of organised labour have disappeared. It’s left the brands as de facto regulators. Even where they make a concerted effort to source their clothes ethically, a long supply chain involving many different subcontractors makes that a tricky task.

Nik’s alarming testimony wasn’t directly to do with technology in the workplace. But it did help us understand current work models, and why they mean advances in technology - contrary to what we’re told about the bigger picture - isn’t being introduced in some sectors.

Companies won’t invest in technologies which (as Chris Pissarides told us in the first session) have the potential to increase pay, productivity and work, if there is cheap unprotected labour out there.

Finally, and most worryingly, the third theme that emerged was how technology was being used to control workers - to increase the pace people work at to ever higher levels of intensity, and to carry out intrusive workplace surveillance on a mind boggling scale.


Dr Kirsty Newsome delivered a stark analysis of the logistics sector. In recent years this has been transformed by what Dr Newsome called the ‘Amazon’ effect – business using technology to give coherence to fragmented global supply chains. Consumers are connected to producers far away - and offered free, speedy delivery.

Dr Newsome’s study tracked the parcel delivery process from the warehouse to the doorstep. It found new technology intervening at multiple stages.

In the warehouse it found employees required to wear watch scanners that track their movements minute by minute, monitoring whether they meet computer generated targets. Targets which don’t take account of age, level of fitness, or mobility. She described cases she’d documented of employees disciplined for spending too long on any task - or even in the loo.

Algorithyms calculate the optimum route for delivery drivers, and similar tracking technology is used to monitor their drop-offs. They too have targets to meet – targets so precise that 30 seconds spent talking to the recipient of the parcel can result in a scolding from management.

This intense monitoring is aimed at optimising efficiency and therefore profit. The technology is allowing for the measurement and extraction of every last bit of effort ina way that just hasn’t been possible before. The reality for employees is that it has stripped away all autonomy - and therefore enjoyment - from their work.


These studies brought to life the different ways in which work is changing right now. In some instances technology is having significant effects on work practices as part of a drive toward greater efficiency and productivity; in others technological developments are being set aside, as human labour is more economical than machine investment.

When we consider these challenges, it is these elements - the failure or withdrawal of regulation; the availability of very cheap labour; and the absence of any collective bargaining power among workers - that we must first look to for solutions. The team from Leicester will now be submitting detailed reports to the Commission.

These will contribute to our assessment of existing work models and challenges and the introduction of new technologies at work, and feed in to the report which the commission will publish later this year. We'll be asking for public submissions soon - if you'd like to get involved, let me know here