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Law Students on Workers' Rights Series

Workers’ Rights in the Age of AI

July 15, 2020

The Right To Learn Will Be The Next Frontier Of Workers’ Rights

By Kevin Frazier

Law Students on Workers’ Rights Series

The Law Students on Workers’ Rights series publishes essays from current and incoming students at some of the top law schools in the country. These essays, submitted for the Charles E. Joseph Employment Law Scholarship, address the question “What are the biggest challenges facing workers’ rights in the future?”

The ongoing adoption of artificial intelligence and automation represents the biggest threat to workers’ rights by virtue of representing the biggest threat to workers’ job security. A conversation about workers’ rights in the age of AI must center on the right of workers to receive ongoing professional training. Absent such a right, workers will see their employability diminish.

Workers will not succeed in stemming the proliferation of job-replacing technology. It follows that workers must focus on how best to adapt in a world that requires constant learning. Over the course of a worker’s career, they will be forced to adapt numerous times or risk their ability to earn a livelihood.

Rather than receiving short and random bursts of training – such as after a promotion or when they start with a new company – workers must demand and secure an ongoing right to learning on the job. This right could look like requiring companies to allocate five hours a week to employee education. If a company opts not to provide such training, then that time should be given to employees to spend time training themselves for job-related activities or even unrelated educational pursuits.

Many companies already offer employees subsidized opportunities to pursue training opportunities. For example, many Google employees may attend some form of job-related grad school part time and receive company support for tuition. Regrettably, Google employees are likely not among those most vulnerable to the whiplash imposed by turbulent technological development. 

The workers most in need of a right to learn are those presently in rote jobs that have a high percentage of automatable skills. Estimates of Americans in jobs highly threatened by automation vary by the time window of the study as well as by assumptions made about technological development; nevertheless, these estimates reveal that tens, if not hundreds, of millions of Americans are threatened by AI and automation.

The right to learn will benefit all parties: the business, the employee, the government, and even the consumer. Businesses will benefit from employees with deeper knowledge of the underlying processes involved in an employee’s role. Employees will receive training that helps them in their current role while also making them more competitive for other positions. The government benefits by reducing the number of people stuck in the wake of industries being submerged by new technology. And, consumers will experience improved products.

The rights of workers have long lagged too far behind modern advances. For instance, despite having the preventative tools to help people live healthy lives, many workers are forced to get by on medical plans that cost too much and cover too little. Now is a critical time to shorten the gap between technological progress and rights in the workplace: everyday that passes without training an employee is another day that AI improves its ability to replace that worker.

Some people will dismiss this argument as incompatible with society’s ability to adjust during any technological wave. “Yes, jobs may disappear,” the skeptics state, “but new ones will come around as well.” However, this technological wave is different from previous swells of innovation. 

AI and automation, unlike the advent of the printing process and sewing machine, do not just remove human intervention from one part of the manufacturing process or shift laborers to closely related fields. Instead, these technological leaps threaten to render humans unnecessary in entire processes and industries. 

The automation of semi-trucks is an example of a leap that effectively replaces an entire way of life. The skeptics point out that millions of drivers will still be required to drive trucks into urban areas. However, those millions will be a fraction of the current workforce. A sustainable and just approach to AI and automation therefore requires giving workers the tools to move up the company or move out to entirely new fields.

Others will point out that workforce training should not fall under the bailiwick of businesses. This argument ignores that training is already shifting away from traditional classroom settings. Moreover, by allowing companies to decide to fulfill their training obligations by their own content or simply by allocating that time to employees, there is a reduced burden on employers who may lack the desire or capacity to develop their own materials.

The Industrial Revolution exposed workers to new threats. It took decades for workers to receive adequate protection. The threats brought by the Digital Revolution are more substantial and only growing. If decades pass before workers receive new rights, then those workers will be past the point of employability.

Reflections from Charles Joseph

Employment laws protect workers from threats like sexual harassment or retaliation. And wrongful termination laws cover employees fired for illegal reasons. But what about workers completely shut out of the workforce? As Kevin Frazier argues, major shifts like AI and automation pose a threat to workers’ rights. However, an investment in ongoing professional training can help workers keep up with future changes. By investing in workforce training – what Frazier terms the right to learn – we can create new, more flexible protections for workers.

Kevin Frazier is pursuing a concurrent JD at UC Berkeley and a master’s of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. A Rhodes Scholar finalist, Frazier has worked as a legal assistant and public policy intern in Silicon Valley. Contact Frazier on LinkedIn

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience as an NYC employment lawyer. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $140 million for clients.