Protecting and Empowering Workers


Stories to Work By

Over recent decades, rapid technological development and automation have been fueling widespread concerns about job security. While many people fear that artificial intelligence may cause mass unemployment, recent studies show that this does not need to be the case, and that the increased demand that new technologies trigger may translate into greater employment—although likely not of the same types as the jobs affected by technological change. In “Stories to Work By” (Issues, Spring 2022), William E. Spriggs highlights how the concerns triggered by narratives of technological inevitability often limit the tools and efforts available to promote equality and opportunity. Spriggs describes recent changes in technology as a missed opportunity for empowerment that has instead resulted in further inequity and the creation of norms that continue to disadvantage workers. Too often, society has ignored this issue by blaming it on the technology itself. It is not the technology, but the regulatory frameworks that we choose to follow that determine these outcomes.

The stories that Spriggs recounts of the railroad workers and telephone operators reveal the underlying dynamics that decided the impacts of these technologies on workers. Spriggs highlights how it was the institutions, rather than skill or talent, that determined the future of the workers. Factors such as race and gender frequently played a large part too. Throughout history, dangerous narratives have fundamentally overlooked the role of institutions and governments in perpetuating labor inequality and have been used to prevent steps from being taken to overcome key concerns. To promote equality and empowerment in the face of technological developments, we must critically examine the regulatory frameworks we apply. As AI continues to develop more rapidly than ever, we are at a key time to reframe core narratives and issues—and that is what UNESCO is doing through our Recommendation on the Ethics of AI.

Narratives have fundamentally overlooked the role of institutions and governments in perpetuating labor inequality and have been used to prevent steps from being taken to overcome key concerns. 

The ample literature that exists about technological paradigms highlights that the current technological wave is not unique in the way it impacts labor markets. When it comes to the importance of regulation, lessons must be taken from stories throughout history, such as those told by Spriggs. The best times, even in terms of economic growth records, were times where social protection systems were established and where labor rights were strengthened. We need to put technology back at the service of people and societies, not the other way around. Today we are being confronted with yet another instance in which labor rights are being eroded. This is not only because of technologies, but because of a race to the bottom where salaries, worker protections, and even environmental concerns are often sacrificed in the name of flexibility, economic development, and other supposedly “superior” goals.

The UNESCO AI Recommendation centers around the defense of human rights and fair outcomes with regards to AI. It looks at the changing world of work and calls for economic and fiscal policies that will help AI applications and business models contribute to economic performance, social empowerment, and inclusion. In the context of huge global inequalities, exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, these policies are a must, or else technological developments will widen and perpetuate existing disparities. Through implementing regulations that protect and empower workers, we can foster positive innovation and growth and begin to change many of the toxic narratives around technologies and people being at odds.

Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences


Cite this Article

“Protecting and Empowering Workers.” Issues in Science and Technology 38, no. 4 (Summer 2022).

Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, Summer 2022