An autonomous delivery man prepares the delivery order for Amazon packages in front of the Amazon logistics center in Alcobendas, Madrid.Andrea Comas placeholder image

Jeff Bezos announced last week that Amazon will use an algorithm to decide the hours of its workers. “We are developing a system to rotate employees between positions that require the use of different muscle groups to reduce the volume of repetitive movements and thus protect their health,” wrote one of the men who tops the world wealth podium.

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The future of work is also this: algorithms and artificial intelligence in the organization of shifts and tasks, in the evaluation of employees, in hiring and firing decisions or in the prevention of occupational risks … The debate on the future is not limited to whether there will be more or less jobs, the issue that has consumed the most efforts (and headlines). There is something else. “Algorithms do not affect only technology companies,” warns Albert Cañigueral, author of the book Work is not what it used to be, aware that the popularity of these platforms may end up simplifying the conception of this technology.

This warning has been present in the negotiation between the Government and the social agents in the law of the riders, which should be approved soon. The second article of the rule agreed in March establishes the obligation for all companies to inform workers’ representatives about the “parameters, rules and instructions on which the algorithms or artificial intelligence systems that affect the taking of decisions ”regarding working conditions. Spain is thus a pioneer with this regulation and it does so with trade unions and employers. “It is a novelty that it is done with social dialogue. There is no experience in Europe or in the world ”, says Luz Rodríguez, professor of Labor Law at the University of Castilla-La Mancha.

This opens the door for algorithms to enter into collective bargaining, in agreements and in relations between unions and employers, that is, where the conflict at stake in labor relations is resolved (salaries, hours, organization work and templates). So much so that the recently signed banking agreement was present in the negotiation with the social agents, which goes beyond what is established by the so-called law of riders. For now, this is the only one in Spain that contains such a clause. On the other hand, almost all the sources consulted foresee that it will go further. José María Martínez, general secretary of the Federation of CC OO Services and negotiator of this agreement, insists on the interest it has aroused in companies from other sectors.

The Secretary of State for Employment, Joaquín Pérez Rey, predicts that this model “is going to become general.” “It is the next stage of collective bargaining,” he predicts. Gonzalo Pino, secretary of Union Policy at UGT, takes another step: “We are already preparing clauses to introduce in the agreements we negotiate. It is going to be a central theme in the next few years ”. In the same direction, Joan Coscubiela, director of the CC OO School of Work, which trains the union’s cadres, points out: “At school we are trying to place the algorithms in the negotiation of agreements.”

Something similar thinks Adrián Todolí, professor of Labor Law at the University of Valencia. He has no doubts that he “opens a door” and that many agreements will enter through it. It is usual that if the law indicates a path in negotiations between unions and employers, this is followed. This rule does not open as much field as that of telework, which indicates a lot of space for collective bargaining, but it does leave gaps to fill in: what information will be required? How often? Will it be enough to do it when the algorithm begins to be used? ?

The dissenting voice is put by Rosa Santos, head of labor relations at CEOE: “We have only agreed to a right of access to information for workers’ representatives, which, in my opinion, was already implicit in the regulation. I don’t think I have to go to conventions. We have only updated the law ”.

Although many think differently, there is an element that can hinder the predicted development: the use in companies of algorithms and artificial intelligence is not very developed in Spain. In an early 2020 survey by Meta 4, a Human Resources applications company, and Future of Work Institute, 81% of the companies surveyed had little knowledge of what robotization processes were or had not heard of them.

Regulate on these technological tools, preferably through social dialogue, and provide transparency is a demand of the International Labor Organization in a recent report on digital platforms. That is what the EU seeks in the directive it prepares on artificial intelligence: in it it draws attention to the risks that they can pose when deciding on promotions, dismissals or evaluations. Three professors from Stanford University and MIT, Katherine C. Kellogg, Melissa A. Valentine and Angèle Chistin, code it in a 2020 paper grouping six tasks that algorithms allow employers to do: limit, recommend, store (data ), evaluate, relocate / substitute and reward.

“Algorithms are very positive for employees when they are well designed, which is the norm,” explains Alfonso Díez, from DXC Technology, “their logic helps, for example, to prevent occupational hazards.” It could be one of the uses of that Amazon case. This long-standing expert continues: “Any perverse use must be avoided. The logic of an algorithm may be correct, but in its programming it may have modifying factors that may come from the statistical analysis of anonymous data that may incorporate a bias due to incompleteness, or by treating them out of context ”.

The Secretary of State, Pérez Rey, sums it up like this: “These tools are going to have more prominence in human resource management. And it is not important just because of the automated mechanisms. These mechanisms have biases ”. One of these biases is what led a court in Italy to declare that a Deliveroo algorithm was discriminatory for failing to distinguish whether or not the reason for a delivery driver showing up for work was not justified.

“The risk of discrimination is what has attracted the most attention,” says Gemma Galdón, director of Éticas Consulting, who believes that the step taken in regulation is “limited.” Todolí adds the lack of autonomy or the intensification of work.

Luz Rodríguez believes that the most important thing is transparency. “It is not about companies saying what the algorithms are like, but what framework, what do you leave, where does it get the data, what parameters, what data are they taking and final decision making. Ultimately, what effects is it having?

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