More than half of furloughed Brits 'risk being replaced by robots'

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·3 min read
A report suggests millions of workers risk being replaced through automation. Photo: Hollie Adams/Getty Images
A report suggests millions of workers risk being replaced through automation. Photo: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

More than half of staff furloughed this year in the UK have been in roles at “high risk” of being replaced by robots, according to new analysis.

A study by the Fabian Society predicted the coronavirus crisis would further accelerate automation, with signs it is already happening and strong evidence from past recessions.

It found workers in hospitality and retail faced a “double whammy,” facing not only furlough and job losses this year but also among the greatest chances of seeing roles automated.

The research suggests 5.9 million of the 9.6 million people furloughed at some point this year were in the third of sectors with the greatest potential for automation.

The report was by the Commission on Workers and Technology, established by the trade union Community and the Fabian Society think tank, and chaired by Labour MP Yvette Cooper.

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“The people whose jobs have been suspended during the COVID-19 crisis are therefore also more likely to see their work replaced by technology,” found the study.

“This is particularly concerning because these sectors are key recruiters for young and unemployed people.”

Cleaners and domestic workers, kitchen and catering assistants, and elementary storage occupations are among the official job categories deemed most at risk of automation.

Such shifts risk exacerbating inequality, as these sectors are also among the lowest-paid. 42% of employees in the bottom fifth of earners were furloughed, lost jobs or hours, versus 15% in the top fifth of earners.

The roles most at risk of automation are lower paid. Chart: Commission on Workers and Technology / ONS data.
The roles most at risk of automation are lower paid. Chart: Commission on Workers and Technology / ONS data.

Cooper called for “urgent action” to ensure all workers benefited from technology. “Technology is already fast changing the world of work – creating remarkable new opportunities but also serious dangers of widening inequality and injustice unless we act.”

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The report warned looming reforms to the skills training system are “vague and appear underfunded,” while the government’s training and jobseeker support measures are “not well integrated.” Furloughed workers do not receive any dedicated training.

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The commission’s proposals include:

  • Free and immediate training or education courses for workers furloughed this winter via the Union Learning Fund, Jobcentres, further education colleges or online courses.

  • Additional government support for employers in COVID-hit sectors to adopt training, technology or other measures which support rather than threaten jobs.

  • Direct job creation efforts by the government, such as accelerated investment in housebuilding, energy efficiency measures and new roads and flood defences. Extra jobs could also be created in education, health and social care to tackle current challenges linked to COVID-19.

  • Expanding the Kickstart programme for unemployed young people to a guarantee of a job with training for all jobseekers.

  • Hiking support for adult training and education in England, including free technical courses and university course bursaries in priority sectors and skills.