Disruptive technology II: What does automation mean for human rights?

27 Nov 2018 01:00h

Event report

The sessions was organised by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR). The moderator, Mr Phil Bloomer (Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre), noted that we live in a world of extreme inequality in which power is not only attributed to the wealthiest, but also translated into forms of ownership and knowledge of data. He said that in facing the challenge of overcoming this inequality, the question about which direction we will take with regards to technology and data is essential. Knowing that there are two prominent views of the impact of technology on human rights: the dystopian vision of technology reinforcing the rift in society; and the utopian vision that sees technology empowering the most vulnerable populations.

Ms Meg Roggensack (Interim Executive Director, International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR)) explained that her work focuses mostly on the bottom of the supply chain, given that automation is accelerating so quickly that it increases social divides to the detriment of workers and weakens their bargaining positions.

Ms Abby Meaders-Henderson (Legal & Policy Fellow, ICAR) said that her research focuses on low-skilled labourers and pointed out that a lot of discussions about the impact of automation are focused on workers in the Globa- North. However, in her view, the impact of technology on low-skilled and manual labour are likely to be felt much earlier and to a greater degree in the Global-South, which puts these workers at a more immediate risk. Given that automation strongly affects repetitive, assembly line type of tasks that companies usually outsource to countries with weaker labour protection frameworks, it is important to strengthen workers’ positions by giving them the resources to strengthen their bargaining positions and help them protect themselves from the impact of potential job losses and shifting resource allocations. She further noted that vulnerable populations such as women, young workers, and migrants are disproportionately affected by these developments.

Meaders-Henderson pointed out that each stakeholder has a role to play in making sure that the transition to increasing automation happens equitably.

Mr Rob Johnston (Assistant Secretary-General of the ITF, International Transport Workers’ Federation) explained that workers in the transportation sector are not necessarily against automation, but rather that they need to be convinced of its benefits and reassured of their role regarding automated tasks.

Johnston also noted that automation is not inevitable but that it is a policy choice and therefore its consequences need to be thought through. He recognised that technology has been of great value to increase the safety of transportation workers and that the desire for automation is strong in certain sectors. However, he also said that the perceived threat of automation is very context specific and dependent of the type of job that technology might replace.

Mr Philippe-André Rodriguez (Senior Advisor, Global Affairs Canada’s Center for International Digital Policy) noted that one of the main things that governments can do in the automation debate is to listen to, and engage with, the stakeholders. They need to reach out to vulnerable populations and find solutions to the impact that automation will have on their livelihoods.

Rodriguez introduced Canada’s Open Government Partnership which recognises the importance of setting the right culture in the discussions by making it clear that the debate of automation and human rights needs to be a race to the top in terms of rights protection. Governments therein can lead by example and adopt policies that recognise the importance of this premise. As a result of these open consultations, Canada has already drafted a Directive on Automated Decision-Making which includes a framework providing governmental oversight and audit procedures.

Ms Padmini Ranganathan (Global Vice President, Products & Innovation, SAP Ariba) mentioned the Skill Shift: Automation and the future of workforce discussion paper published by McKensey Global Institute according to which companies will increase their gains through worker displacement, wherein manual jobs are most at risk. The replacement of workers and wage saving will be turned into profits for the companies.

According to Ranganathan, brands and original equipment manufacturers (OEM) must identify risk factors through available data and apply it countermeasures throughout their supply chain. Companies must develop strategies for job shifts in collaboration with governments and civil society.

New ways must be found to redistribute the profits from wage savings in the from of community trainings and other measures. All stakeholders must do their part in reducing the potential conflicts arising from income polarisation and societal divides as well as finding mechanisms to reward businesses who are leading efforts for human rights due diligence in the context of automation.

Mr Dunstan Allison-Hope (Managing Director, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR)) introduced the Automation: A Framework for a Sustainable Transition which includes measures such as:

  • Forecasting and announcing planned workforce changes early by making a company’s intention to automate processes clear and providing details to the workforce,

  • Committing to training and supporting educational programmes for the workers,

  • Providing for workers who are displaced, and

  • Encouraging public policies to modernise social safety nets.

However, it must be recognised that training programmes need to take labourers’ skills into account and not simply focus on providing lessons.

Mr Yousuf Aftab (Principal, Enodo Rights) introduced the Just Transition framework. He noted that the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights are not clear on whether automation and the relocation of workers is a useful practice. Aftab also noted that the impacts of automation.

The Just Transition framework takes into account that the impacts of automation are systemic. While it was developed to tackle environmental challenges its concepts can also be applied to automation and human rights due diligence. The framework contains provisions to: assess, and engage with and empower workers; to regulate; to create new social safety nets; foster community and encourage sound investment as deliberate policy choices.

Another panellist spoke about the lessons to be learned from the dissolved Multifiber Arrangement which ended apparel quotas.

The panellist explained that there are two types of retrenchments which need to be distinguished despite having similar impacts on workers. Factories are upgrading and opting for automation and workers might lose jobs. However, companies that are going out of business for not having been able to keep up with technological trends might also cause job losses. In the latter cases, expectations for companies must be set – that they still have to provide for their workers – but governments must also consider adapting their social protection systems. Most importantly, companies going out of business must give workers:


  • Early notice

  • Select workers to be let go in transparent ways

  • Allocate time for workers in transition period

  • Respect payment of severances in accordance to local laws

  • establish criteria to re-hire workers