Technology   //   October 28, 2022

Strike out: Industrial action could accelerate the shift to automated jobs

Set against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis, the so-called “summer of discontent” in the U.K. — which has seen strikes from railway workers, criminal barristers, Royal Mail employees, teachers, airport staff, healthcare staff, and others—looks likely to extend through the winter. And the feeling of dissatisfaction is not limited to the U.K., with workers downing tools across the globe.

Although the U.K. lawyers finally stepped away from the picket line in early October, accepting the government’s 15% pay raise, Royal Mail staff and railway workers are currently participating in long-running industrial action to resolve disputes about salary and working conditions. 

Ironically, the crux of the matter is job security, yet the prolonged absence from work only strengthens the argument for investing in automation that will, ultimately, reduce headcount.

In the north of England, on Oct. 19 alone, 55 trains were canceled by rail operators Avanti and TransPennine Express. Unions have long feared that automating public transport would trigger a mass loss of jobs. However, by striking, their horror scenario is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophesy sooner rather than later. 

Indeed, in this instance, the ongoing standoff between workers and the government over pension reform highlights the potential advantages of replacing humans with machines. So perhaps revolting workers should be careful what they wish for, as they could strike themselves out of their jobs.

“Public transport has long been ahead of the curve [in terms of embracing automation],” said José Viegas, former secretary-general at the International Transport Forum. “London Underground’s Victoria line has been using automatic train operation since 1967. And the SkyTrain in Vancouver — the world’s longest automated transit line — has been in operation since the 1980s.”

French lessons

Those striking in the U.K. would be wise to consider what happened across the Channel, in France, during the Christmas period in 2019. A national strike over pension reform brought most public transport in Paris to a standstill. But two Métro lines operate as normal— no prizes for guessing they were driverless.

The No. 14, which connects Saint-Lazare with stops along the River Seine, was the first automated line to be opened in 1998. In 2012, the No. 1 — the French capital’s busiest link from east to west — switched to a driverless service to increase train frequency. 

The two-month strike ended in late January 2020, but not before almost 11,000 disgruntled Parisians signed an online petition calling for the complete Métro network to be automated.

“The transportation and storage, manufacturing and wholesale and retail sectors account for 28% of the U.K. workforce — meaning 4.2 million jobs are now at risk of becoming outdated and eradicated in the hands of automation.”
Carl Lygo, CEO and vice-chancellor of Arden University.

Notably, this September, a third Métro line, No. 4, which opened in 1908, began its steady transformation to becoming fully automated. The entire line is expected to be fully automated by the end of next year, and the state-owned public transport operator RATP promises a “70% reduction in delays.”

Meanwhile, in the U.K., Royal Mail workers started 19 days of industrial action on Oct. 13 in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions. The next day, it was announced that 6,000 jobs could be cut over the next year, with more at risk in the future.

A Royal Mail spokesperson said: “We will be starting the process of consulting on rightsizing the business in response to the impact of industrial action, delays in delivering agreed productivity improvements and lower parcel volumes.” 

Royal Mail employees are planning to strike on Black Friday on Nov. 25 and Cyber Monday the following week to achieve maximum disruption. But could this actually backfire and accelerate their career demise?

Machines dont strike

It is no coincidence that last November, Royal Mail trumpeted the opening of a fully automated parcel sorting machine in its Tyneside mail center, which can process 180,000 parcels daily. 

The organization’s COO at the time, Achim Duennwald, said: “We are transforming the way Royal Mail processes parcels, which are rapidly growing in popularity thanks to the boom in e-commerce and new online shopping trends accelerated by the pandemic.” 

He argued that investment in “state-of-the-art parcel sorting machines and automated technology” enabled Royal Mail to compete for business and stay relevant in the digital era. Numerous other fully automated sorting offices have since been opened. 

In March, a month after Duennwald moved on, Royal Mail reached the milestone of 50% automated parcels — up from 33% last year. The target is to achieve 90% parcel automation by 2024.

Aside from reducing human errors and tardiness, there are myriad benefits of automating specific processes. Machines can work all hours, and artificial intelligence solutions improve systems and boost efficiencies while reducing cost and waste. 

Additionally, machines are reliable workers — they don’t complain or strike. Regardless, business leaders can learn from the worldwide strikes and take proactive steps to ensure their workers are happy.

Still, the threat of automation eradicating human roles is genuine, according to a report published by Arden University earlier this year. It calculated that by 2030 around 30% of jobs in the U.K. would be taken over by machines. The transport industry is top of the list, with 56% of all jobs likely to be lost to automation by the decade’s end.

“The transportation and storage, manufacturing and wholesale and retail sectors account for 28% of the U.K. workforce — meaning 4.2 million jobs are now at risk of becoming outdated and eradicated in the hands of automation,” said Carl Lygo, CEO and vice-chancellor of Arden University.

Alarmingly, no specific U.K. legislation currently protects workers against automation, points out Hannah Ford, a partner at Surrey-headquartered solicitors Stevens & Bolton. “Employment law has failed to keep pace with digital change,” she said. 

Therefore, Ford added, workers are reliant on existing “one-size-fits-all case law and statute” to address particular issues. These include redundancies caused by work displacement, loss of work opportunities, or knock-on changes to terms and conditions, such as reductions in hours and pay. “The downsides of automation have been acutely felt in unionized sectors such as manufacturing and transport,” she acknowledged. 

Finally, Ford urged businesses leaders to proceed with caution before ramping up investment in AI and automation. She added: “Algorithms are by their nature devoid of warmth and human interaction, which can lead to crude decision making and alienate a talent pool or workforce.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Post Office employees were on strike, when it should have been Royal Mail employees. We apologize for the error.