What will happen to workers with the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

THE impact of artificial intelligence, robotics and the digital revolution is bound to worsen economic, income and class inequalities. Rogan Ward Reuters/African News Agency (ANA)

How do we engage with the technological hurricane that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR) is going to virtually prove to be, in ways which attenuate the destructive decimation of many jobs it will bring, while utilizing the benefits it might have for greater operational and productivity efficiencies, but which workers can tangibly benefit from or is it possible, given its nature, to secure both aims in the first place?

The minister of Higher Education, Naledi Pandor, repeatedly stresses the urgent need for South Africa to participate in the FIR and utilize its technological and scientific benefits for our development, but she has hardly dealt with the deleterious consequences which await workers as a result of this technological ‘revolution’. The FIR is in fact arguably a political and social counterrevolution, in terms of the impending adverse social consequences it will undoubtedly have, especially in the midst of the current very deep systemic South African and global capitalist crisis, which has already had a very destructive impact on workers everywhere.

I don’t think Pandor seriously considers the impact the FIR is going to have, especially in a country where for several years already the General Secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Union (Saftu), Zwelinzima Vavi, has repeatedly called attention to the “jobless bloodbath” in this country. Unemployment today is the highest it has ever been in post-apartheid South Africa, which is bound to get much worse as a result of the massive job losses that the FIR will lead to.

Besides, I have read little or nothing thus far by commentators and analysts which clearly and comprehensively defines both the risks and benefits the FIT will have for us, especially from a labour-friendly perspective. This is what is urgently needed, in order to get the real debate underway. Instead of vigorously engaging with the pros and cons of the FIR Pandor and some other commentators and even scholars write about the FIR in a largely technicist manner, bereft of any sociological, labour or political economy analyses, as if its is a fait accompli we can do nothing about, other than passively and slavishly “prepare” for.

What we are largely told about is how the FIR is going to change our lives and the world of work more specifically and the appropriate skills training and education we need to prepare for and acquire. But in this discourse there is little or nothing about the forces behind the FIR, what it seeks to achieve, who is driving it and for what purpose, how it will affect the working class and what we, especially trade unions whose members will be most affected, can do to address those problems and be better prepared to grapple with them when they present themselves more forcefully over the next few years.

The FIR is by its nature driven by those countries which have the biggest and most powerful economies in the world, such as those in the United States, Europe, Japan and China. The combined impact of artificial intelligence, robotics and the digital revolution is bound to worsen economic, income and class inequalities, especially in Africa and the rest of the so-called Third World. Why is there hardly anyone who deals with these impending social consequences and what we need to do to prepare ourselves, but in activist ways which confront the downsides of the FIR in the interests of unions and wider civil society, rather than lie prostrated before a menacing storm that us brewing on the horizon, before which we are powerless and helpless?

Pandor and some leading academics have been approaching the FIR in a very technicist manner. All they talk about is getting the economy, the educational system and related institutions prepared for the technological floodgates of the FIR. But how will workers, both organized and unorganized, and the rest of civil society, deal and cope with the negative job losses of the FIR and its devastating social consequences? What about its impact on the black youth, especially the millions of those already languishing in the doldrums of debilitating unemployment? Will it not make them finding work much more difficult, if not impossible, and what will happen to them when they become unemployable? These are only some of the key and critical questions those who write about the FIR hardly ever raise.

The predominant narrative appears to be to passively roll over and make way for this technological hurricane, however destructive its social consequences might be. The only activism this approach narrates is getting ready for this tidal wave of artificial intelligence, robotics and digitalism, unleashed by the economies of the dominant global capitalist countries, which is leading the way in this “revolution”. The colonialist undercurrents in this one-sided discourse are already very clearly evident, between Africa and the West: adapt or die.

Most unfortunately, South African trade unions are hardly taking the FIR seriously. Where in this crucially important discourse are their voices? This question is especially important because thus far it has been dominated by an uncritical hegemonic approach or scholars who are more interested in sounding clever about the technical intricacies of the FIR, rather than dealing also with the social and human consequences for the working class and what needs to be done about that?

What we going to end up with is a small layer of highly skilled workers, a fraction of the current workforce, following retrenchments, and a massive pool of relatively unskilled and virtually unemployable workers. If you thought that post-apartheid South Africa has been unfair to the black working class, worse still await us with the FIR, I am convinced, unless trade unions and wider civil society wake up now.

This government and the bosses are certainly not going to defend the interests of the working class while the FIR decimates further its already rapidly dwindling employment numbers. That is a job mainly for the trade unions and if they fail to measure up to that huge challenge their future is going to be much bleaker than it already appears to be, by most accounts.

Dr. Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and former Cosatu trade unionist.