The senseless fight against technology advances in South Africa

South Africa’s largest finance union, the South African Society of Bank Officials (SASBO), recently planned a country-wide strike to protest against job losses and retrenchments at local banks.

These job losses and retrenchments have been caused by branch closures and increased adoption of digital banking services.

SASBO secretary-general Joe Kokela partly blamed technological advancements for these job losses, adding that the banks did not prepare their employees for these changes.

This is not the first time a trade union has revolted against the impact of technological advances which could lead to job losses.

When Pick n Pay started to test self-service terminals in 2016, the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu) was quick to threaten strike action.

“These automated tellers are going to lead to job losses, and Cosatu is going to oppose it,” said Tony Ehrenreich, Cosatu’s provincial secretary of the Western Cape.

“If need be we will call for boycotts of those retail stores which insist on putting in place measures which are anti-worker, and anti the objectives of South Africa,” he said.

Cannot hold back technology

While the unions may see short-term benefits in holding back technology which may lead to job losses, the long-term impact is devastating.

Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib said in 2018 that most jobs that exist today will likely not exist in the future.

While major industrial shifts mainly impacted blue-collar work in the past, the next advancements in technology will impact a wider range of workers.

The answer to this is not to prevent companies from rolling out technology that automates jobs, Habib said.

“If we block the use of technological advancements, not only will we irreparably damage that company, we will irreparably damage this country, and this continent.”

Miners become coders

One of the industries in South Africa which is the hardest hit by automation, with accompanying job losses, is mining.

Bit Source and Mined Mines in Kentucky and Pennsylvania set an example for how to prepare for the changing industrial world by taking miners who were impacted by job losses and training them to be programmers.

The president of the company, Justin Hall, said that coding is blue-collar work and that their workers were able to problem-solve once they started working and got familiar with the tools and products they provided.

The impact of AI and 4IR

Efficient Group founder and chief economist Dawie Roodt said artificial intelligence (AI) and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) will have a big impact on the job market.

He said many people will lose their current source of income, but added that this is nothing new.

“We have been there many times before – with all the previous industrial revolutions – and a lot of jobs were destroyed,” said Roodt.

However, said Roodt, while many jobs and businesses are destroyed by technological advances, many new jobs and businesses are created.

He added that these disruptions should be encouraged, as this is the way an economy grows and how more wealth is created.

Now read: How to destroy a country – The South African story

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The senseless fight against technology advances in South Africa