How robots and cobots will affect employment laws

New technology is changing how we work across the world – and presenting challenges of how this new technology can be harmonised with ageing employment laws. The ‘second machine age’ will have two categories of employees according to economists: 

  • those who instruct machines; and 
  • those who receive instructions from machines. 

Businesses will have to consider the impact of this on diversity and harassment. Human managers will have to develop different skills to manage a mixed workforce of human and virtual employees. They will also have to be aware of anti-discrimination and harassment laws: will it be unlawful to discriminate against human workers by favouring robots for certain tasks, for example? will robots be protected against harassment? 

Equally, if machines instruct human workers, will the general principles of fair treatment and equal treatment be affected? Can robots be programmed not to discriminate? 

Will robots steal your job?

The EU is helping businesses build cobots – collaborative robots that co-operate with human workers. Professions are ‘computerising’, and humans and semi-autonomous machines are interacting more. 

This has triggered anxiety over potential job losses as people have focussed on where robots may replace human workers, rather than on how to work with them. Technology may of course displace workers in the short-term, but in the long-term, economists hope that robot sales can also create or sustain jobs while increasing productivity and profits. 

Or could robots save your job? 

Physical therapists initially greeted the rise of exoskeletons with scepticism, for instance, because they feared the new technology would supplant their services. But therapists now realise that exoskeletons free them to observe their patients’ progress and help them do their job better. 

Aside from exoskeleton users and their therapists, engineers, scientists and employees already acknowledge the success of this technology and will certainly profit from it. 

The legal implications of robots in the workplace

New-generation robots designed to measure emotional responses, heart rates, eye movement and facial expressions are already being tested in recruitment. But these advanced features could raise ethical issues and businesses will have to grapple with how this technology will interact with legislation that protects against discrimination in recruitment.