“Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?" Asked the vineyard owner.
"Because no one has hired us" they answered.
Households across the United Kingdom were busy yesterday completing the census return, including a mass of intrusive questions about gender. However, it was the questions about work which will be truly illuminating, due to the combined impact of the pandemic and the technological revolution.
On Saturday morning, the Oxford Diocesan Synod debated a motion on work, a subject with which the Bishop of Oxford has been closely involved. It came a few days after the High Court’s decision to require Uber to treat its drivers as employees, and in the midst of the furore following Amazon's decision to blindfold its third party sellers to the location and identity of their customers.
So in this commentary we join the call for fair working practices; but, more than that, we argue that mass participation in tech giant ownership is the only long-term solution which will enable both the benefits and the wealth generated by technology to be enjoyed by everyone.
Bishop Steven Croft has a long pedigree of involvement in the world of technology and work during his time thus far in the House of Lords. You may recall his work on artificial intelligence, and more recently he has worked with Dr. Simon Cross to put together the background paper for the debate on the Future of Work at our synod on Saturday. The search for a comprehensive answer to the challenge of technology goes on.
It was during this debate that my old friend and erstwhile General Synod colleague, Anna Thomas-Betts, drew our attention to the extract from the ‘workers in the vineyard’ parable at the head of this commentary.
The pandemic has brought the issue of what work will look like in the future sharply into focus. The High Street has been deserted, and everyone has become used to doorstep delivery. Amazon has remained as efficient as ever, and it has used its increasing monopoly ruthlessly to manipulate its third party suppliers.
More and more businesses are moving away from the workplace, away from physical interaction - and we all appreciate the huge contribution that this will make in eliminating time wasted in travel and reducing the burden on the environment.
We are moving swiftly into a world where automation is replacing huge swathes of human work activity. As we appreciate, this brings huge benefits but also huge challenges. In particular, the old system of raw capitalism is more than ever delivering a huge gulf between rich and poor, leaving huge numbers of people living on subsistence income and subservient to what the elite serves up to them.
The impact on the shape of work was already being seen before the pandemic, with self-employment rising from 8% of UK workers in 1975 to 14% in 2019. The census will tell us by how much that has increased over the past two years, but my guess is for a further substantial rise.
It's not, however, self-employment by choice - it's people trying to find a new way of living as their former employers embed automation into their processes. One of the most extraordinary statistics in Simon Cross's report is that in 1990 the top three US carmakers had a market capitalisation of $36 billion and employed 1.2 million people: last year, Silicon Valley’s top three companies had a market value of more than $4.5 trillion, but only 341,000 employees between them.
The solution to this challenge is not to be found in a Luddite attachment to the concept of work per se. Automation will continue to bring huge benefits to humanity and, while we should resist technological applications which require humans to behave like computers, we should welcome it when it augments human creativity and fulfilment.
But this can only be achieved by mass participation in ownership, so that all staff, customers and suppliers of the tech giants can share in their success, and help to steer their destiny going forwards. As we said on 10 August last year, it's about dividends, not wasting money on space rockets. As joint stock owners, the dividends which flow from the wealth generated by automation can provide for everyone, and all of us – customers, staff and employees - will also have the opportunity to influence their future.
It’s for these reasons that I'm delighted that the SHARE project on egalitarian capitalism is getting underway at Cambridge University, and I look forward to an announcement being made in the next few days on its progress.
Meanwhile, no doubt, President Biden’s team will be taking a close look at Amazon's sharp practices in blindfolding their third-party suppliers, which was highlighted by The Sunday Times Business section yesterday. Their determination to introduce anti-trust legislation may well be increased by these revelations, which also show that out of an estimated $300 billion value of sales by third party vendors, Amazon took $80 billion in fees, commission and delivery charges: just under 27%.
For sure, self-employed third party vendors would bend over backwards to find alternatives if they could. However, the indignity of receiving state handouts in the form of universal basic income is no solution - mass participation in stock ownership is the way forward.
Gavin Oldham OBE