IN THE week which saw an international report warning that the pandemic would continue to drive down wages, a panel of expert speakers focused on the Future of Work.Against a backdrop of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) data showing that the crisis was likely to inflict massive downward pressure on wages in the near future, the Communist Party of Britain brought together activists and academics to take a forensic look at the causes of low wages, precarious work and shoddy treatment of workers.Launching the ILO report last week, director-general Guy Ryder said: The growth in inequality created by the Covid-19 crisis threatens a legacy of poverty and social and economic instability that would be devastating.
Our recovery strategy must be human-centred. We need adequate wage policies that take into account the sustainability of jobs and enterprises, and also address inequalities and the need to sustain demand.
If we are going to build a better future we must also deal with some uncomfortable questions about why jobs with high social value, such as carers and teachers, are very often linked to low pay.A key focus at the online seminar was the gig economy, that spurious phrase aimed at hoodwinking workers into notions that they are more in control of their labour. In reality, it has meant insecurity, stress, ill-health and penury for many.Dr Leonardo Impett, specialist in artificial intelligence (AI) and currently assistant professor of computer science at the University of Durham, brought a Marxist perspective to the way that tomorrows world of work is being steered.Debunking some popular beliefs about the use of AI and the ability of robots Impett said that the medias shorthand use of the term AI actually referred to machine learning.This was how computers or robots learned from experience, either from hand-labelled examples given to them supervised learning or their own past mistakes reinforcement learning.That second one is only of any use in cases where you know if youve won or lost, like if youre playing a chess game or tennis, say.
The computer goes into the game, it knows if its doing better or worse, it can practise against itself and it can learn that way.Most of the AI that we see in the real world is not that. Most of it is supervised learning and it cant do that without training data.
For example, to teach a car to drive, we need many, many thousands of hours of humans driving around roads All this needs a lot of training data much more than a human would need!Large technology companies such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon which had grown massively in the past decade or so, had conflated themselves with the breakthroughs in learning, he claimed. Theyd grown in political power, too, but little of what they used was truly AI.Turning to Uber, he said: [It] is a combination of pretty dumb technology, which is a little phone app that shows where taxis are on a map, with old-fashioned corporate cost-cutting.
If you count drivers as self-employed, you dont have to pay the minimum wage.The only bit of smart tech that is actually in Uber is in the sat-nav and Google doesnt even do its own sat-nav; it relies on Google Maps.The business model relied on deskilling, with drivers able to work in any city; there were no driver exams, no black cab drivers required to do the Knowledge.
It was a classic example of automation used for deskilling rather than freeing up workers time.Imagining a world with driverless taxis, Impett said that labour would actually move elsewhere, as there would be thousands of computer technicians needed, as well as real drivers producing the data sets on which algorithmic drivers would rely.
This work, though, would be embedded in the machine, meaning technicians and drivers would no longer be needed.
All had been foretold by Marx in Grundrisse, when he wrote of the transformation of the means of labour into machinery.Impett stressed the need for interventions, especially where workers were being expected to produce training data for their own algorithmic replacement.These workers have to organise to protect their own intellectual property. These people are now content-producers no different from someone making an album, or a painting with the right to claim a commission each time their original work [their training data] is used.There was a pressing need, he argued, in the traditions of Marxist and socialist programmes for literacy, to campaign for a programme of mass computational literacy.Ursula Huws, professor of labour and globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire, looked at the digitalisation of labour, especially in the context of the current pandemic.The pandemic hit an economy that was already in very dynamic upheaval. Since the crisis of 2007-8 there have been enormous changes in global capitalism and in labour because you cant separate the two.In some areas the brakes screeched on in travel and high-street retail but in other parts of the economy there was a huge acceleration of existing trends.We should remember, she said, that under capitalism, new technologies are not introduced in the way you imagine when youre in a science class, when along comes an inventor with a good idea.
Capitalists tend to adopt technologies only as and when they suit their particular purposes.It was the periods of upheaval which caused them to seize on the technologies around, to use them for their own purposes.One of these is to cheapen the value of labour in existing industries, largely done through automation.
But capitalism also creates new business models and new industries, based on the commodification of aspects of human life, and aspects of nature, which previously were outside the money economy plastic surgery, drugs, the biotech industries, for example. Its what Marx called primitive accumulation.Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary of Unite and current president of the TUC, also looked at effects of the Covid-19 crisis: We are seeing widening income and health inequalities.
The pandemic has helped us understand more acutely the wrong-minded description of some jobs. Take care workers, designated as unskilled, bumping along on the minimum wage.
Again, retail workers regarded as unskilled but both kept going through the pandemic, in key public-facing roles. Yet the Chancellor in the Comprehensive Spending Review chose not to implement what we would regard as a minimum 10 an hour wage I would much prefer a living wage.I have suggested that in our unions evidence to the pay review body that we submit the death certificates of the NHS workers disproportionately black and Asian ethnic minorities, who have died due to many factors, but including the lack of PPE.A vital issue, she said, was to safeguarding trade unions access to workers, including those who are working remotely.Every bone in our body supports collectivism. We support trade union organising; we support bargaining not begging We want to value work and workers.Communist Party of Britain chair Liz Payne told the webinar: We know that, whatever capitalism does, it always tries to intensify the exploitation of working people, whether through plundering resources, or using technology.We stand for the opposite; for peace, for progress, for freedom, for democracy, and we stand for socialism.We are of course for resistance to whatever is to the detriment of workers, but we are also for transformation, and for the future.
These presentations, and those of other speakers, can be viewed at facebook.com/CPBritain.
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