When labour unions in South Africa oppose advances in technology that automate jobs, they will only end up costing their members in the long run.
Speaking at Telkom’s SATNAC 2018, Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib said most jobs that exist today will likely not exist in the future.
This includes white collar jobs, Habib emphasised.
While major industrial shifts mainly impacted blue collar work in the past, the next advancements in technology will impact more 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.”
Habib’s statements hark back to incidents such as Cosatu balking at Pick n Pay’s testing of self-help checkout points in 2016.
When companies that employ unionised workers in South Africa talk about automation technology, they are frequently met with threats of strikes or boycotts.
The Pick n Pay incident was no different, with Cosatu threatening to ask its members to boycott retailers that put technology in place that is “anti-worker”.
Unions might be able to win six or nine months this way, said Habib, but they won’t be able to stand in the way of progress forever.
The longer we stall, the more South Africa will be left behind as a society, he added.
“Skilled” jobs also being automated
To illustrate his point, Habib cited a study by LawGeex, which pitted human lawyers against artificial intelligence. It asked 20 lawyers and the AI to spot loopholes in five non-disclosure agreements.
The human lawyers achieved an average accuracy rating of 85%, and took 92 minutes on average. The highest accuracy the humans achieved was 97%.
The AI was able to achieve an average accuracy of 94%, and its best was 100% accuracy. It also only needed 26 seconds to review the documents.
Preventing technology like this from being used will make the country as a whole uncompetitive compared to countries which adopt the technology.
Miners become coders
Miners in the United States, whose industry was hit by significant job losses, are an example of an employee shift.
IEEE Spectrum reported about Bit Source and Mined Mines in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, which took on miners and trained them to be programmers.
The president of the company, Justin Hall, said that coding is blue collar work. He added that their “blue collar coders” were able to problem solve once they started working and got familiar with the tools and products they provided.
“Coal-miners are tech-oriented people. They’re engineers that get dirty,” he said.
This kind of training and re-skilling of workers made redundant by technology or economics is not happening at large scale, however.
It’s a similar situation for young people who can’t attend higher education institutions, said Habib.
Initiatives like WeThinkCode, which offers a two-year programming academy for free to people who perform well on its entrance tests, are a good example of what can be done, but the challenge is to scale these operations so that millions of students can be trained.
“If we are going to address these issues, we’re going to have to start thinking about acting as a system, a collective,” Habib said.
Thinking and operating as individual citizens, organisations, companies, and government departments will not yield the solutions we need.
The solution lies in embracing new technologies and making ourselves ready for them, not trying to resist them.