Staff member in John Lewis store in London, in July
More than 3m furloughed jobs were in the most vulnerable sectors: hospitality, retail and motor sales and repairs © Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The coronavirus crisis is accelerating workplace automation, putting UK jobs at risk in the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, according to research published on Tuesday. 

A two-year inquiry by a commission set up by the trade union Community and the Fabian Society think-tank warned of a “disastrous double whammy” for low-paid workers in sectors such as retail and hospitality who were ill-equipped to move into the new jobs technology would create. 

Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP who led the inquiry, said that while the take-up of technology to enable ecommerce and homeworking had clearly helped to save jobs since the start of the crisis, the growth of automation was now “on steroids” in some sectors against a backdrop of “a much more difficult labour market and a deeply damaged economy”. 

The commission found that 61 per cent of jobs furloughed in the first half of 2020 were in sectors that previous analysis by the Office for National Statistics showed to be at highest risk of automation that could replace workers. More than 3m furloughed jobs were in the most vulnerable sectors — hospitality, retail and motor sales and repairs. 

Many of the jobs put on hold by public health measures were unlikely to return even after the crisis eased, the commission warned, noting that customers had become used to shopping online and ordering food or checking into hotels through apps and touchscreens. But even in sectors that had been hiring in recent months, such as logistics, jobs were susceptible to automation in the medium term.

Without action to retrain those affected, “the rewards of new technologies won’t be evenly shared, and the lowest-paid workers will lose out”, Ms Cooper said. City centre economies were of acute immediate concern, but evidence from previous recessions suggested that the poorest parts of the country could suffer most in the long term, she added. 

In the short term, the priority should be to make training available to furloughed workers and expand the government’s Kickstart programme to guarantee a job with training to workers over the age of 25, she argued. 

In the longer term, the commission wants to see an overhaul of the UK’s adult education system — in which at present, those most in need of training are least likely to receive it. 

Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabian Society, said extra spending for adult skills that had been announced this year was “totally inadequate to meet the nation’s . . . needs”. He added that “ministers must pump far more money in” to offer free training to everyone who was furloughed or unemployed.

The report called for action to increase the pay and status of care work and other essential low-paid jobs where employment was likely to continue growing.

It also recommended that workers be given more say over the adoption of new technology and stronger protections be put in place to guide the use of AI tools in recruitment, and employers be prevented from using new technology to monitor staff without their knowledge. 

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