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We cannot stop technology but we can choose how to respond

- Imraan Valodia

The way we work will be ground zero for waves of change, so South Africa must start making plans.

Economies around the world are exploring ways to deal with the fourth industrial revolution. The technological developments we are witnessing today are unlike those of the digital revolution of the past century in both scope and speed of breakthroughs.

Billions of people across the social classes are now connected and have access to an unprecedented library of information. The internet of things, artificial intelligence and access and analyses of big data are driving economic change across the globe.

One concern for all of us is that these developments are fundamentally changing the labour market, with machines being able to perform tasks previously done only by humans. These changes are having significant effects on skilled, white-collar workers as well as unskilled workers.

These changes have the potential to do great things for humanity. Through making information more widely available, they can have positive effects on health, conflict and the environment. However, they also pose a threat that could lead to underemployment, large job losses, smaller proportions of the workforce having access to jobs, increased inequality and a rise in poverty.

Because of both possibilities — but especially the threats to the labour market — the International Labour Organisation has set up a multiyear consultative project called the Future of Work. At a recent conference in Geneva, speakers from around the world discussed some of the core issues coming out of this project. The conference aimed to "gain greater understanding of the changes we are witnessing and to develop effective policy responses that can shape the future of work".

The symposium was structured around the initiative’s four "centenary conversations": work and society; decent jobs for all; the organisation of work and production; and the governance of work.

Given this country’s complex labour market challenges, we need as a society to consider this debate carefully, engage with the research in the area and develop plans for dealing with these developments.

After all, technological change is not independent of social norms and regulations. Instead, these social norms and regulations shape the process of technological change and its outcomes fundamentally.

My contribution to the panel discussion entitled The Future of Work – A View from the Global South, was structured along the following lines:

It is important to acknowledge that the experiences of technology are very different for developing and developed nations. Rich countries are having discussions over life balance and using technology to ensure workers have more leisure. But this is unlikely to be the case for most workers in SA.

Given our extremely high levels of unemployment and the extent of low-paid jobs — almost half of workers in SA earn less than R3 500 — it is very unlikely, except for a very small number of workers with high earnings, that the trade-off will be between work and leisure. Our society needs to provide many more better-paid jobs.

We cannot avoid technological advancement, but we can decide how to maximise the benefits and minimise the drawbacks.

We have to acknowledge that technology will be disruptive. New advances are likely to result in extra costs for businesses as they adjust. There is also a chance that some of the advancements (particularly in artificial intelligence) are going to replace human beings. At least one insurance firm in Japan has replaced 34 workers by a computer system that can calculate payouts to policyholders. Many large firms in financial and other services are likely to change the composition of their workforces over the coming decades.

A big part of the discussion, especially in countries with high unemployment, must be around dealing with these inevitable negative consequences. This will involve looking at innovative ways to ensure technology serves to support, rather than replace, workers.

Measures to protect most vulnerable workers should be in place

In 2017, the World Economic Forum received a report of a survey of 18 000 employers in 43 countries including SA, on the possible effects of automation. About 82% of employers expect to maintain or increase staff levels. This somewhat surprising figure means that some employers have clearly begun to think about adjusting to new ways of working and maximising the positive spin-offs — such as increased productivity and output — that automation could bring. However, we need to realise that the flexibility of businesses in wealthy countries to adjust to changes in production is far greater than in developing countries such as ours.

We should analyse what we mean by work. We tend to focus on paid work and ignore unpaid work, and the interactions between paid and unpaid work. There is a gendered distribution of unpaid work, with a large number of women in our society having to deal with the burdens of low-paid work and an unequal burden of unpaid care work. Technological change has the possibility of significantly changing the nature of both paid and unpaid work.

In most developing countries over the past three decades, most jobs, especially for women, have been created in the informal economy. The debate on the future of work has to date paid very little, if any, attention to work in the informal economy.

It is incumbent on academics, policy makers and social partner leadership urgently to start having conversations about measures to protect and promote the decent work agenda.

At the very least, there should be measures to ensure that workers who are most vulnerable are protected by some basic standards. One of these is a national minimum wage, which would guarantee an income that, although still below the living wage, is a significant increase for 47% of workers in the country right now. But there are other social measures — such as a basic income grant — that should be considered.

The worst response would be to assume a one-size-fits-all approach based on how wealthy countries will adjust to this new world of working. SA has a combination of very serious structural and economic problems, exacerbated by our recent downgrade to junk status. Our massive inequality, high levels of poverty and millions of citizens who cannot find work mean that we are already far more vulnerable to these sweeping and inevitable changes than wealthy countries.

We need urgently to start having these important conversations to ensure we are drivers of, and not just responders to, the fourth industrial revolution.

Professor Imraan Valodia is the Dean of the Wits Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management and Chair of the National Minimum Wage Advisory Panel. This article was first published in Business Day. Read the original article.