Artificial intelligence has made headlines since ChatGPT stunned the world with its ability to mimic human speech. The reaction to such generative AI has been very strong, with many high-profile people calling for a pause in its development. At EU level, policymakers are currently trying to regulate AI with the much-debated AI Act. However, as is all too often the case, the world of work is falling off the radar.

IndustriAll European Trade Union, representing workers in manufacturing across the continent, is calling for a legislative proposal to regulate AI at the workplace and for stronger collective bargaining at all levels to ensure that workers’ rights are protected.

Legislative proposal on AI at the workplace urgently needed

The Artificial Intelligence Act proposed by the European Commission only requires manufacturers to classify their own technology as low or high risk before putting it on the market, and does not include any rules on the use of AI in the workplace.

The AI Act is currently undergoing the legislative process with scrutiny by European Parliament and the Council and trade unions have welcomed the important improvements made by the progressive forces in the European Parliament. Their position includes a duty to consult with workers and their unions before introducing AI to the workplace. However, many concerns remain, as the European Parliament failed to close the loophole which leaves workers’ safety and fundamental rights at risk. Unfortunately, the use of AI in the workplace will only be restricted if it poses a ‘significant risk’. This vague wording leaves to leaves much room for interpretation and it is difficult to determine in advance and in concrete terms what constitutes a 'significant risk'. Adding this extra layer to the high-risk classification could jeopardise the rights of workers to be protected from the adverse health and safety impacts of AI.

Even if the Parliament manages to secure the improvements in negotiations with the Council on the final text, the AI Act falls short of protecting workers' rights. Trade unions have long called for an adequate regulatory framework for the use of AI in the workplace. We hope to see a dedicated legislative proposal on this issue during the next Commission's mandate.

Collective bargaining is key to mitigate risk in the workplace

There is growing evidence of the impact of AI on the world of work. A recent survey-based study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that workers in the manufacturing sectors are experiencing increased intensity and stress as a result of the faster pace of work dictated by AI, and are increasingly concerned about the privacy of their data.

However, the study also shows that the solution lies in the involvement of workers through their union. AI tends to have a more positive impact when workers are consulted about the introduction of the new technology and trained to use it effectively. This is where collective bargaining becomes key. Collective bargaining is the only way for workers to be effectively involved in decision-making at company level, because it is the only time that workers, represented by their trade union, sit down with management and negotiate with them on an equal footing.

For many, collective bargaining is only about securing better wages and improving core working conditions such as working time. But collective bargaining goes much further than that. It is also about ensuring a fair digital and green twin transition and a fairer society. In countries where collective bargaining structures are strong and work well at all levels, especially at the sectoral level, we can see that the transition is much more advanced and benefits everyone. IndustriAll Europe’s collective bargaining database provides a number of good examples of collective agreements on the transition.

A well-functioning social dialogue and collective bargaining system ensures not only that workers will be timely informed and consulted about the introduction of new technologies in the workplace, but also that they will have the opportunity to: negotiate adequate training in the use of the new technology; adapt the work organisation; update the necessary health and safety provisions; and establish channels for changing technologies that might not be working well. Workers and their trade union representatives are the ones who know best the reality of the impacts of AI technologies in the workplace, because their daily activities are directly affected by them. Involving them can only improve the functioning of AI and ensure a digital transition that works for everyone.

On-the-job training must be guaranteed

On-the-job training and lifelong-learning programmes are essential as AI changes the nature of jobs. But these training programmes however require massive investment and the right framework conditions to work. Again, collective bargaining is key. The best example of this comes from Sweden, where two landmark agreements have been enshrined in law, guaranteeing the right to training with paid leave. This needs to be replicated across Europe.
In manufacturing, AI has been associated with the deskilling of workers, especially those with medium qualifications. This creates a dangerous polarisation between high-skilled and low-skilled workers.

A good example is the electric engine, which is replacing its fossil-fuel-based internal combustion predecessor. Much of the diagnostics and repair in the event of damage are done by AI—leaving little room for mechanics, sometimes even engineers.

The problem of deskilling is closely linked to the growing ‘invisible tasks’ created by AI. A process is never fully automated, because there are always secondary tasks that workers have to perform to the rhythm of the AI. It may appear that the machine is working on its own, but in fact the worker is struggling to keep up - their role is sometimes reduced to simple, repetitive button-pushing

Feedback from workers

This is clearly not the improvement in job quality that more rosy promotions of AI herald. Again, a good solution is early planning and consultation with workers and their unions through proper social dialogue and collective bargaining.

This should be done at all levels, but especially at company level, where workers should be involved in co-designing the AI to be introduced. Workers understand the impact of AI on them; their feedback adds a lot of value and should therefore be taken into account.

We are at a crossroads in the development and use of AI, with the rapid emergence of sometimes unexpected capabilities, as shown by ChatGPT. But there is no technological determinism. On the contrary, intelligent and rapidly evolving regulation, put in place as a matter of urgency, can not only avoid the risk of falling behind the pace of innovation, but also shape its character. The world of work cannot be treated by default as a testbed for new AI. Technological progress must go hand in hand with social progress!

For its part, industriAll Europe will develop strategies and mobilise appropriate tools to reap the benefits of AI applications in the workplace. Strong collective bargaining is the basis for this.

This opinion by Isabelle Barthès and Patricia Velicu has been published by 'The future of work' project of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Athens and Re-public.