The tech conundrum for labour

Posted on September 7, 2021


(First published on Fin24 & in City Press, South Africa)

Shoprite, South Africa’s largest food retailer and a major employer, is on course to launch fully automated supermarket checkouts. And that announcement last week should have sent shivers of apprehension throughout the working class and trade union movement, especially coming in the same week that official unemployment reached record highs.

It’s not that we weren’t warned. Five years ago, after spending several weeks abroad, I wrote in this column that I had noticed “how retailing has become much more efficient”. But, I pointed out, it had done so in a manner that indicated “gloomy prospects ahead for workers”.

A couple of years earlier, in one store in London in the UK, I had watched attentive staff guiding the customers in the use of the then recently introduced self-service checkout system.

On the visit two years later, the only human presence, apart from customers, was a man near the door wearing a security company uniform.
This was a view of the future – and it worked. But not to the advantage of the workers. The local unions also seemed paralysed, seeming not to have any alternative view of how to function in the digital times ahead.

Little has changed.

Lessons have not been learnt and warnings about the consequences of the private profit-driven march of automation still seem to fall mostly on deaf ears. In the meantime, the technology has been refined and the retail sector in South Africa may be on the verge of leapfrogging into the latest in automated shopping.

I say leapfrogging because the technology here will be the best available, and will therefore bypass the various glitches that occurred in the regions where the system was first used.
One of these areas involved fresh produce, where it was discovered, for example, that tons of cheap potatoes appeared to be sold while expensive exotic produce that disappeared off the shelves did not register.

Weighing and paying for their purchases, customers merely recorded everything as potatoes — and paid accordingly.

The “self-weigh and declare” system is already in operation in some Pick n Pay stores in the country, but the payment process still takes place via the staffed checkout points. However, that too will change.

Competition, especially on price, will ensure that the march of automation in the retail sector, as in every sector from banking to manufacturing, will, if anything, speed up. Throughout, the need for convenience is stressed.

Automated systems tend to be convenient – and more efficient. This means that costs, and therefore prices, can be lowered. But the cost of lost jobs, repeated in sectors across the economy, could be catastrophic – the resultant increase in poverty and inequality eventually undermining the very customer base on which the system depends.

That customer base is also going to be increasingly angry and desperate, a consequence that threatens the social fabric of society. Growing awareness of this fact has seen leading capitalists, along with trade unionists, punting the idea of a universal basic income grant. But this is no solution to the crisis of inequality.

Besides, the majority of working people do not want hand-outs: they want to be meaningfully occupied – and that means jobs, not only now, but in the decades to come.

Business has no answers because most of this sector concentrates only on the next quarter, let alone the next financial year, while all are dedicated, out of necessity, to the maximisation of profit. Politicians, often influenced by or even in the pay of business, tend to specialise in supposed quick fixes that often seem designed to improve their electoral chances.

Even where unions acknowledge that longer-term planning is needed, they tend only to react to whatever is thrown at workers by the business and political elite. They fight to retain the existing jobs and to improve existing wages without adequate – or even any – consideration of the necessary alternatives.

Although weakened in recent years, the unions, especially if united, are still a potentially potent force that represents the majority of organised employees. This is a force that could – and should – drive the changes needed to fight the scourge of poverty and inequality.

Perhaps now is the time to resurrect that labour movement proposal of nearly 20 years ago for all the infrastructure work to be labour-based. It was opposed by sections of business, ignored by government and then dropped by the unions.

At the same time, the twin long-term focus should be on electricity and education. Again, there are no quick fixes – and stop-gap measures should be avoided.

Without adequate electricity, there is little hope of progress. Similarly, without a mass cohort of future young workers capable of critical thinking, the social and economic fabric will remain in tatters.

This means starting now, concentrating on the earliest years, focusing on the training of paediatric specialists and nursery school teachers.

As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass once noted: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

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