Are robots taking our jobs – and how can the co-operative movement save us?

Does technology pose a threat to co-operatives? Or is it opening new opportunities for the sector? The topic was one of the key themes at the Co-operative Economy...

Does technology pose a threat to co-operatives? Or is it opening new opportunities for the sector? The topic was one of the key themes at the Co-operative Economy conference in London on 28 January.

The event, the first organised by the Co-operative Party in its centenary year, included deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, as one of the keynote speakers.

“We’re on the brink of a new industrial revolution and I honestly can’t wait to see it unfold,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what we humans invent next.”

The MP has set up the independent Future of Work Commission, bringing together experts and political figures such as Co-op Party secretary general Claire McCarthy to analyse technological change to see how it will affect the world of work.

“Bank of America has said automated systems will be carrying out nearly half of all manufacturing jobs within a generation,” said Mr Watson. “Consultancy firm Deloitte says that 35% of UK jobs have an element that could be automated. And that’s jobs all across the spectrum.”

Testimonies to the commission had shown that while technological changes enabled human progress, they could also pave the way to worker exploitation, he warned.

Related: Looking at the future of work in the age of the robot

One of the sectors most affected is logistics, which is currently worth £55bn to the economy – 5% of the UK’s GDP – and employing 2 million people.

Mr Watson said: “It is a sector that is using unregulated technology to wring the very last drop of productivity out of worker – 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.”

Technology can pose threats to the manufacturing sector as well. Researchers at Leicester University, who gave evidence to the Future of Work Commission, estimate that in total, clothing manufacturing workers in the East Midlands are being underpaid to the tune of £1 million a week.

To address this, Mr Watson called for “collective action”. He advised trade unions to increase membership remake the argument for their existence to a new generation, using online tools and social media to engage with the public.

Co-ops can also help in addressing the exploitation of workers. Mr Watson gave the example of the Musicians’ Union in Swindon setting up a co-op to help a group of music teachers made redundant and forced into self-employment.

“By banding together, they addressed problems from back office support to vulnerability to exploitation. We need more of that,” he said.

The MP, who shadows the department of culture, media and sports, said he was committed to deliver on John McDonnell’s pledge to double the size of the co-operative economy and would work to achieve this in his sector.

He invited delegates to engage with him and the Labour Party to help grow co-operatives and “stop the extreme commodification of labour”.

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