I followed the recent announcement and public discussions regarding the minimum wage in South Africa with some interest. I heard that some companies might reduce their labour force to keep their wage bill at affordable levels.
Simply reducing the number of workers to save money is not the answer though, as it will negatively affect the company’s productivity and limit the number – or scale – of projects the company could tackle. This, in turn, will limit the amount of money the company can make, restrict its growth, and prevent it from employing additional staff.
A recent article on the BBC news website stated that a Chinese subcontractor in the electronics manufacturing sector had announced that it would replace 60 000 employees on its assembly lines with robots. The company concerned said it plans to use the robots in its engineering and manufacturing areas to do the repetitive tasks previously done by human employees. It claimed that it will train its employees to focus on higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process, such as research and development, process control, and quality control.
It seems to me that those processes will not require all of the 60 000 employees who currently work on the production lines. Furthermore, some, if not all of those functions will already be filled by existing experienced personnel. The most likely scenario is that most, if not all of the employees whose jobs will be taken by robots, will be dismissed from the company. The article quoted economists who issued dire warnings about how automation will affect the job market, with one report suggesting that 35% of jobs are at risk over the next 20 years.
The motivation is, of course, cost savings. Company managers often cite wage increases from minimum-wage negotiations as the driver to consider robots. One chief executive has been quoted as saying he would rather buy a robot than pay the minimum wage to an inefficient employee.
But there are serious risks associated with such systems. Over and above an increased unemployment problem, the use of robots for frequently-performed actions or procedures ultimately robs people of their skills by removing the opportunity to practise them.
Automation has its drawbacks. Robots cannot reason or solve problems the way people can. When an operator needs to take over from a robot, something has usually gone wrong, which means that the operator needs to be sufficiently skilled at the task to be able to cope with unusual conditions. However, without the opportunity to practise – because the work is routinely done by robots – the operator might not have the ability to resolve the problem.
This problem is known as the paradox of automation. More ubiquitous robotic systems in factories will result in fewer skilled human operators being on hand who could respond quickly to production-line problems. Fewer skilled human operators in a factory could result in a situation in which a mechanical fault or software error in the robotic system may require professional intervention resulting in lengthy and expensive production delays.
What’s worse, of course, is that a person may never learn the required skill in the first place because of their reliance on a robot or automatic system. Thus, when things go wrong, the person employed to troubleshoot may be totally incapable of resolving the problem.
While it may seem sensible for a company to reduce its personnel costs by replacing people with robots, one wonders what the long-term effects of such a decision will be. What will happen to the millions of people who are currently employed doing repetitive tasks, who might not have the educational background or intellectual ability to cope with a focus on higher value-added aspects of the manufacturing process?