The landing page for OpenAI's ChatGPT.
The landing page for OpenAI's ChatGPT. Credit: Jonathan Kemper / Unsplash

In the wake of a “hot labour summer” that saw many workers fight for the livable wages they deserve, it may be deflating to hear about the rising threat of AI and automation. 

Employers and corporations, ever focused on profit, are looking at the use of technology to help companies cut what is often their biggest cost: labour. But technology booms do not need to be anti-worker, they only pose a threat when used in a certain way. 

Rising automation and AI are being used in creative industries in a way that threatens workers across Canada and the US. 

Actors represented by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) continue to be locked out of commercial productions. At the same time, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) remain on the picket line for fair wages. Amidst all this, the conversation around AI has dipped in and out of headlines.

READ MORE: How technology is being used against actors and performers

According to ACTRA president Eleanor Noble, AI could pose a very big threat to actors. SAG-AFTRA, WGA and ACTRA have all expressed concern over AI being used to copy a performer’s image or replicate a writer’s style. 

“For performers our product is our voice, our face, our image, our being,” Noble previously said in an interview with “For writers, it’s the writing skills. If we do not have any control over our product, if we are not consenting to and not being compensated for the use of our image or for being copied in some way that is just immoral and unethical.” 

For postal workers, automation has also become a rising threat to people’ livelihoods. 

The National Grievance Officer at the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), Carl Girouard, put out a statement last month outlining how the Canada Post’s use of technology goes against the interests of workers. Girouard said that the Canada Post is trying to grow its parcel business by “modernizing its facilities and equipment.” This modernization amounts to the testing of new technologies like automated guided vehicles, robotic parcel arms, autonomous mobile robots and even follow-me robots for letter carriers. 

“For postal workers, these new technologies are a clear threat,” Girouard wrote. “While technology could be utilized to make the work easier or more ergonomic, it is mainly used to eliminate workers and jobs and increase the employer’s control of the workplace.” 

AI could lead to widespread surveillance of workers

The risks related to automation and AI go beyond the elimination of jobs. Professor Paul Gray from Brock University’s Labour Studies Department, said that the growing use of AI and other new technology in the workplace could mean more widespread, intense and minute surveillance of workers. 

“There also has to be the demand for transparency around AI algorithms and data,” Gray said. “A lot of the so-called AI machine learning is basically just observing and reproducing the behaviors of human beings, for example how they interact on the internet.” 

Gray said that transparency around algorithms used in AI could help avoid the amplification of human biases. He pointed to Amazon’s experience while testing the use of algorithms during the hiring process

“They found consistently that [the algorithm] was biased against women,” Gray said. “Any candidate that identified as a woman was ranked lower than an equally qualified male candidate. Even after several rounds of trying to fix the problem, this consistently occurred. They ended up scrapping it altogether.”

With all these threats related to AI and automation, where do the benefits come in? According to Gray, one side of the debate argues that AI could be beneficial if society adapts to a “post-work” world. The crux of this argument is that automation could lead to mass unemployment, but this need not be a bad thing.

A post work world

“In a post-work world the majority of people, or at least a significant minority, can’t find work,” Gray said. “So people will point to potential solutions to a situation like that. There are some debates around a universal basic income as one of the policy responses to that idea.” 

This view of a post-work world can seem pretty inviting. As Justice for Workers Guelph put it, “automation promised to make work easier and free more time for leisure activities.” 

However the post-work world is not the only possible outcome of rising AI and automation. Gray said that he believes the other side of the debate to be more true. AI and automation will have profound impacts on work and employment, but it does not mean mass unemployment is inevitable. 

“Some forms of work might be rendered obsolete,” Gray said, “but the introduction of new technologies also tends to create new forms of work as well.” 

Gray pointed to the concerns that arose as computers became more integrated into the workplace. While some feared mass unemployment, the computer eventually allowed many new kinds of jobs to be possible. 

When employers around the world were surveyed for the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Future of Jobs report, 50 per cent of survey respondents expected that technological change would lead to job creation. One of the jobs created is data work. 

“I don’t think many people appreciate how much ongoing labor underlies AI and tends to be made invisible,” Gray said. 

There is a task based labour force that helps develop machine learning systems. There is ongoing labour to fix problems with the technology and a large number of people inputting information into technology. 

However, the mere creation of jobs is not enough to soothe workers’ worries. As data work rises, we must ensure that this industry contains decent work opportunities. 

“A lot of that work has been organized to be precarious, contingent, temporary and contract labour. It’s often paid by the task, not periods of time. It often offers very low wages,” Gray said. 

The Data Workers Union, created by the Institute of Human Obsolescence (IoHO), has highlighted some of the issues data workers face. The organization wrote on their website that they fight for the end to exploitation of the production of data and for workers to gain control over its ownership. They are also exploring the possibility of a basic income for data workers, rather than a per task payment system. 

“I think, the discussions around automation and AI in particular, are often dominated by quantitative considerations instead of qualitative ones,” Professor Gray said. “It’s quantitative, because people are asking, ‘Will there be more or less work?’ I think the much more relevant question is qualitative. What kinds of work are going to be available? What kind of qualitative changes are going to be introduced to work by the increasing prominence of these kinds of technologies?” 

Organizing as a defence against automization

Gray said that the answers to his questions are not set in stone. Workers need to organize so that the qualitative changes to their lives will be in their favour. 

The work is already underway, ACTRA is calling for “guardrails” around the use of AI in creative industries. Meanwhile CUPW has said that they are working with the Canadian Labour Congress to address their concerns around automation at the Canada Post and push the federal government to adopt pro-worker laws around AI, automation, and other new technologies.

“New generations of workers are trying to adapt classic organizing methods to their relatively new kinds of workplaces,” Gray explained. “Workers who want to organize online digital task based work, for example, are searching out forums. These forums are used to hear from current workers about their experiences and to get advice as people make their decision about whether or not they want to try to pursue this kind of work.” 

This organizing effort underlines that automation doesn’t need to be a threat to workers. Gray said that AI and automation can have social benefits. Although job loss is a risk, there is also the hope of greater work-life balance, more ergonomic work and the creation of new jobs. 

“Whether or not these technologies are introduced in humane ways depends more on social relationships and the balance of power. Workers need to organize to ensure that they have as much of a say as they can get in how these technologies are used,” Gray concluded.


Gabriela Calugay-Casuga

Gabriela “Gabby” Calugay-Casuga (she/they) is a writer and activist based in so-called “Ottawa.” They began writing for Migrante Ottawa’s radio show, Talakayang Bayan, in 2017. Since then, she...