Stop trying to hold back progress in South Africa

Pick n Pay recently starting testing self-service terminals at its Ottery store in Cape Town, and it was not long before Cosatu tried to stop this innovation.

Cobus Barnard, Pick n Pay’s group executive for retail office and supply chain, said the self-help checkout points are aimed at making shopping easier and more convenient.

He said these checkout points can help customers who are in a hurry to go through the check-out process themselves.

“This is an add-on to the traditional check-out, and it is all about customer service,” said Barnard.

He explained that there will be Pick n Pay staff members who man the self-help points to assist clients with the process.

These staff members will also address issues like theft, and people with full trollies trying to use the service which is intended for a few items only.

The trial phase is likely to last around 6 months, after which Pick n Pay will have a better idea on how much benefit it adds, and whether it should be rolled out to further stores.

Pick n Pay dismissed speculation that it will lead to job losses.

“Staff are required to monitor self-service checkouts and there is no impact on employment,” said Pick n Pay’s group executive for strategy and corporate affairs, David North.

However, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and its affiliates are up in arms, saying it was not consulted regarding the self-service terminals.

According to Cosatu, Pick n Pay employees are fearful that the new self-service tills will impact their jobs.

“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.

Ehrenreich’s views clearly illustrate a widespread problem in South Africa, where many people think they can hold back technological advances, and through this save jobs.

This perception is not only deeply flawed, but can cause immense damage to the local economy.

Encouraging investment in technology innovations like faster broadband, renewable energy, and online services, is a great way to grow an economy.

According to the World Economic Forum, information and communications technology (ICT) is one of the fastest growing industries. It creates jobs and is an important enabler of innovation and development.

The World Economic Forum provided five common economic effects of investments in ICT.

  • Direct job creation — The ICT sector is, and is expected to remain, one of the largest employers.
  • Contribution to GDP growth — Findings from various countries confirm the positive effect of ICT on growth.
  • Emergence of new services and industries – Growth in ICT opens up new industries, which in turn creates jobs.
  • Workforce transformation – ICT is creating different, higher paid jobs, and has spillover effects on other industries, such as online payment systems. ICT has also contributed to the rise of entrepreneurship.
  • Business innovation — ICT tools employed within companies help to streamline business processes and improve efficiency. It has also created new ways for businesses to serve their customers.

So instead of costing jobs, technological progress creates jobs, and is necessary to remain competitive in a global market.

To fight against self-serving tills is like arguing against e-mail (because it hurts the Post Office and snail mail), or saying electricity is bad (because it hurts the timber industry).

An even bigger risk, which Cosatu may not have considered, is that unless Pick n Pay makes shopping at brick-and-mortar stores more convenient, people will simply move to online shopping.

This means that there will definitely be job losses at the stores which are impacted, especially when it comes to people at till points.

So the message is clear: South Africa should embrace and encourage technology, and ensure we do not land up on the wrong side of the digital divide.

This article is an opinion piece.

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Stop trying to hold back progress in South Africa