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Solidarity’s Du Plessis urges unions to move with the hi-tech times

Contrary to several populist unions’ belief that modernisation will cost their members jobs and the wildcat strikes that then ensue, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with its plethora of hi-tech tools will allow skills development and create more, higher paying opportunities. That’s the message from Gideon du Plessis, Solidarity’s General Secretary in this reasoned, well-substantiated analysis, which, were it to be taken on board by unions across the board in South Africa, would help jumpstart our struggling economy. It’s a timely message as the country holds its collective breath to see whether President Zuma’s calling in of 400-plus troops to secure parliament for his SONA speech portends any shock announcements. It’s more likely that it’s merely a knee-jerk reaction to the EFF’s unruly ‘pay back the money’ performance last year, combined with the thousands of protestors outside the gates whose behaviour set alarm bells ringing. Let’s hope so, because if Msholozi delivers a message as sound and sober as Du Plessis here, it will rekindle hope. Which springs eternal. – Chris Bateman

By Gideon du Plessis*

According to Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, we are increasingly living in the time of the Fourth Industrial Revolution which will fundamentally change the way in which we live and work. Schwab describes the Fourth Industrial Revolution as “unprecedented advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, energy storage, quantum computing [which are] redefining industries and creating new opportunities”.

Similarly, in a speech delivered at Numsa’s 10th Congress in December 2016, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel warned metal workers that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is unfolding in an unstoppable way. Patel warned delegates to be mindful of the reality that the production and manufacturing model was in the process of changing. “But don’t be like the first workers in history who tried to smash the machines that had replaced them. We can’t do that”.

Ebrahim Patel, Minister of Economic Development of South Africa, during the Job Creation session at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2011 held in Cape Town, South Africa.

Through this remark Patel also aimed some criticism at the #FeesMustFall movement and he emphasised that ultimately destroying and burning is to the detriment of the aggressors. In his history lesson Patel referred to the textile workers who had apparently destroyed machines during the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago in Britain. Patel is mistaken insofar as he refers to the Luddites (thus called after the irate apprentice Ned Ludd) who destroyed machines to stop automation, whereas it was indeed the protest action of skilled workers against the unfair labour practices brought about by mechanisation.

However, Patel’s advice is spot on because a Marxist trade union such as Numsa will have to realise that modernisation actually benefits metal workers as new equipment will have to be manufactured, repaired and maintained.

At the moment, certain populist trade unions are digging in their heels against modernisation of the mining sector. Despite a few exceptions where mines are mined out faster and jobs are lost at a faster rate as a result of modernising, modernisation brings many benefits. In the first place, it makes the workplace safer, especially where mining takes place at depths of more than 3,000m, and secondly, it stretches the lifespan of deep level mining of high grade ore where machines can be used at places where conventional mining methods just are not viable anymore. It also means that miners can earn higher salaries as a result of having acquired a higher skill set and can earn production bonuses as a result of increased productivity associated with modernisation. Mining houses’ hidden agenda to use modernisation to counteract unhealthy labour relations, creates tension although the Department of Labour’s 2015 statistics, according to which 55% of strikes had been unprotected (that is illegal), may well justify the employers’ rationale.

labour relations
Gideon du Plessis

The fear that modernisation processes usually lead to job losses is unfounded. In any event, we as trade unions in South Africa only support modernisation processes if existing workers will not lose their jobs as a result of it, and the necessary training is provided to empower employees to get the hang of technological change.

A study, “Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy, undertaken by the Executive Office of the US President in 2016 shows that routine-intensive occupations that focused on predictable, easily-programmable tasks – such as switchboard operators, filing and admin clerks, travel agents, and assembly line workers – are particularly vulnerable to replacement by new technologies. However, on the other hand, it has been confirmed that Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven automation will make workers more productive, generally translating into salary increases giving workers the opportunity to afford more goods and services. New jobs are likely to be directly created in areas such as development and supervision. Reference is also made to the fact that while e-mail and e-commerce may have reduced the demand for the delivery of letters, they have not killed off the U.S. Postal Service. In fact, e-commerce has created an entirely new category of postal jobs related to the delivery of items ordered online – for example, a company such as Amazon creates jobs for 600,000 postal workers.

The good news is that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to increase income levels in South Africa and to improve the standard of living and quality of life. For it to succeed though, modernisation has to be supported and skills development must be recognised by trade unions and politicians as the best form of worker empowerment.

  • Gideon du Plessis is Solidarity’s General Secretary
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