How will AI (Artificial Intelligence) affect employment law?
Around 30% of jobs may be at high risk of automation by the early 2030s, according to PwC’s latest UK Economic Outlook report. Transportation and storage, manufacturing and wholesale, and retail are the sectors most at risk, while health and social work are predicted to be the lowest risk. However, employees should not start panicking just yet as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics could also create new jobs in digital technology and generate further wealth that will support some additional jobs of existing kinds.
Who knows what the future may hold, but these predictions certainly raise some interesting employment law considerations if AI in the workplace does increase.
Redundancy and reorganisation
The most obvious issue is the potential for job losses because employers may wish to reduce their human headcount, or at the very least change their job functions, in favour of computerised workers.
For any dismissal to be fair, the employer firstly needs a fair reason for the termination. If there is a reduced need for work of the kind that the employee does, that would usually be redundancy. Alternatively, there might be a reorganisation of work, which could be ‘some other substantial reason’ justifying dismissal.
Secondly, the employer must follow a fair termination process. This will involve informing the employee of the risk to their continued employment and consulting with them, before coming to a decision. The employee should be entitled to appeal against that decision if they are not happy with it. Depending on the numbers involved, there might also be collective consultation obligations where trade unions or employee representatives become involved.
If there is no fair reason and/or process for dismissal, employees with more than two years’ service will be entitled to claim unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal, which could lead to compensation being awarded to them.
Where an employer simply wants to change the employee’s job duties (rather than dismiss them), the employee’s express agreement to the changes should first be obtained, because an employer is not entitled to unilaterally amend their terms.
Will employers face grievances from employees about robots creating an unpleasant work environment? Mad as it may sound, you might remember a robot named Tay which was released by Microsoft last year. Tay communicated on Twitter but was susceptible to unsavoury tweets made by some of its followers and soon Tay was sending out its own racist and sexist remarks. One could see how a similar situation might occur in the workplace.
Employers are vicariously liable for the acts of their employees during the course of their work, but an interesting issue is where the liability will fall for acts carried out by their robots. Robots are not classed as a legal person so it follows that employers are not responsible. However, there have been calls in Europe for robots to be categorised as ‘electronic persons’ so this may change in future.
As well as creating potential problems, robots could offer solutions to some current employment concerns, such as unconscious bias during, say, a recruitment process. With robots capable of being entirely objective, a sift of applications by them should be free of any discrimination on the basis of sex, age, race or otherwise.
To conclude, employers will need to stay up to date with technological advancements and have a rational and sensitive strategy for the introduction of AI in their workplace, while also keeping an eye on employment law developments in this area.
This article first appeared on PeopleManagement.com and is reproduced with kind permission.