Tom Watson
Tom Watson has been increasingly concerned by the prospect of automation Getty

The rise of robots in the workplace needs to be monitored to make sure the workers they are replacing do not fall into poverty, deputy Labour leader Tom Watson has warned.

Watson has become increasingly concerned by the possible ramifications of the rise of the digital economy, which he already believes is concentrating the world's wealth in the hands of a diminishing number of people. In a speech in Weymouth, he told party activists that he thought the trend would get worse until governments stepped in.

"We need government, workers, employers and enlightened entrepreneurs to work in partnership to ensure everyone gains from the benefits these changes will bring," he said. "Our challenge in the next decades of automation will be to work out how we continue to grow our economy but ensure that the value created and time saved by automated systems is shared more fairly, and not used to further enrich an already wealthy and powerful elite."

He warned that the rise of tech giants was already beginning to remove low-skilled jobs in worrying numbers. Admitting that this had so far proved advantageous to consumers, he told his audience he was nevertheless worried that there was little "social dividend" in terms of investment in social infrastructure, education, skills and health.

"Uber, Facebook, Google and the other successful tech platforms have brought immense gains to the lives of millions of people, but they are part of an emerging 'winner takes all' economy," he said.

"The forces of globalisation and automation are leaving our society's labour market looking increasingly like an hourglass, with room at the top for those with existing wealth or access to capital and a widening base of lower-paid jobs that cannot be automated. And a hollowing-out in the middle – the jobs in retail or high street banking, for example.

"Do we really want a society of affluent leaders, struggling workers with little room in the middle and fewer chances for movement?"