Delivering Quality Jobs Needs More Humanity 

Recently I was lucky enough to visit the Spanish city of San Sebastian to present and speak about the role of employee ownership in delivering quality jobs. 

Sharing the platform with a range of other speakers from the EU and beyond also enabled me to learn about the range of emerging technologies that have the potential to develop or threaten the global provision of quality jobs. 

A speaker from the Autonomous Systems Policy Institute explained how autonomous vehicles (AVs) have the potential to change personal travel and the transport of freight.  Driverless cars will bring the driving experience to an end, leading to the creation of ‘drivers clubs’ where members pay to drive! And we should get used to seeing the ‘platooning’ of lorries on our motorways as one lead driver takes charge of a whole convoy of vehicles.  

A speaker from Cambridge University took us into the deep world of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning where algorithms could be used in many areas of our lives to complement or even substitute human services, including in the legal profession where it is claimed machines could replace judgements that could be predicted based on previous experiences. 

Finally, we heard about the rise of platform-based employment that delivers services we are becoming more familiar with such as Uber or Deliveroo along with other ‘services on demand’ such as dog walkers, baby sitters or creative design services paid by the hour.  These services are possible because of technology, but in a gig worker economy, we also heard how such workers lack essential services that are part of more traditional employment such as social engagement and welfare services and therefore how these are emerging as new additional services in the ecosystem that supports such platform workers. 

Its clear these technologies will be part of life moving forwards, but as I listened, I wondered if we are investing sufficient thought about their ethical impacts?   

For example how does an AV determine its course when presented with the choice of injuring or killing either a pedestrian who has stepped out in front of it as it travels at 40mph or its passenger? What if the algorithm that determines a judgement in a legal case is based on the evidence of previous, flawed and biased judgements? And how can a lone worker, providing their design services ‘on demand’ from a co-working space or their front room be supported if they receive negative feedback on their work? 

Technology is evolving at an eye watering pace, but I wonder if we are also considering the question of ‘just because we CAN, does that mean we SHOULD’ in all instances?  This is especially the case when we consider the likely impact on job reduction of new technology, with the associated potential widening of inequality for workers who fail to transition to new working practices, which is summarised in a recent EU report. 

A second additional benefit of my visit was that whilst in the Basque country, I was able to fulfil an ambition to visit the world-famous Mondragon Corporation, the largest and most advanced cooperative in the world. 

Mondragon is a fascinating model of inclusive business, founded in 1956 and consisting of 97 worker cooperatives employing over 82,000, most of whom are owners.  Most of the businesses are large, in the industrial and distribution sectors of the economy and are competing successfully in global markets. 

My visit to Mondragon was fleeting and others have written more extensive accounts of their time there, however coming immediately after my reflections on the previous presentations, I was struck by the humanity at Mondragon. Its founder, Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, did not set out to establish a cooperative economy in the town of Mondragon, but to support the social fabric of the town and its people. Therefore throughout Mondragon there is a strong sense of compassion and empathy for people as part of a clear focus on profitable employment, indeed the Corporation’s strapline is ‘Humanity at Work’. 

As our world evolves and technology advances, there will be many opportunities to use technology to advance the quality of our lives.  However, the ethics of how such technology is applied must be a priority consideration and, in order to ensure that there is sufficient rigour and integrity applied, probably the duty of those not developing the technology.  And the consequences and implications of the effects of the technology must also be given due consideration – so that displaced employees can be encouraged to be retrained and skilled for new roles or supported to identify other meaningful activities to fulfil their lives. 

And why is all this relevant to employee ownership? 

Because throughout my time in San Sebastian I was reminded that in employee owned businesses, their people ARE the business.  Corporate values put their people first and are generally based on shared responsibilities, forms of shared reward and involvement in decision making. However, most of these are operating in environments where their competitors won’t necessarily have the same values, and therefore the temptation of the ‘race to the bottom’ is always there, especially where costs are involved.

However, if the notion of ‘quality jobs’ is about providing well rewarded jobs, with the opportunity to influence work and have a say in the business, whilst being part of a business that is investing in its longterm future, then employee owned businesses will continue to maintain their position as attractive employers. 

I am therefore convinced that employee owned businesses also operate with humanity, providing quality employment that is part of running better businesses.  As I stated in a recent blog, this also confirms why the UK must develop a cross-party, National Strategy for Employee Ownership to further develop and grow this innovative part of the economy.