The increasing use of automated machines and robots in workplaces presents the latest threat to employment opportunities in the country. This evolving trend has created fears among Nigerians that their sources of income could be taken over by the machines, Ajose Sehindemi reports.
A factory worker, Mr Adebogun Olawale, has been an underpaid machine operator for a multinational company in Lagos for the past five years.
He lives with his wife and three children in a one- room apartment in an undeveloped part of Lagos.
He has witnessed the sack of several of his colleagues due to downsizing of the company’s workforce. For several months, he was the only machine operator left in the company.
But he was shocked some weeks ago when he resumed duty but was told his services would no more be needed. He has been replaced.
Mr Alimi Ogunwale is a middle level manager in one of the multinationals in the food, alcohol and beverage sector. He has been assured of job security due to the fact that he has paid his due and slaved for the company to get to the level he is.
His confidence was much that he lived on the fast lane. But when the company discovered that some of the staff can be replaced in a cost effective measure and increase productivity, he was let off with 14 others, four middle level managers like him and10 junior workers in his department. He is presently in shock as all the incentives disappeared into the thin air and especially in a situation where he is yet to complete the construction of a house for his family.
He and the others are currently negotiating with the multinational on their pay off.
Aside underemployment, late payment of salaries, mass sack of workers, expatriates proliferation, absence of decent work and non-payment of pension plaquing workers across the country, a potent threat is on the horizon that would lead to more workers being laid off and further swell the number of the unemployed in the country raising security challenges for the government.
There is a new threat to their jobs This time, they are not losing (jobs) it to an expatriate or a more qualified, but to robots.
A new report released by McKinsey & Company indicated that by 2030,as many as 800 million workers worldwide could be replaced by robots.
The study found that in more advanced economies like the U.S and Germany, up to one-third of the 2030 workforce may need to learn new skills and find new work, while economies like China’s, roughly 12 per cent of workers may need to switch occupations by 2030.
Industrialisation 4.0 represents the fourth industrial revolution in the manufacturing and industry sector of the economy. It is the current industrial transformation with automation, data exchanges, cloud, cyber-physical systems, robots, big data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and autonomous industrial techniques to realise smart industry and manufacturing goals in the intersection of people, new technologies and innovation.
It is the era of machines and robots aided by technology, and for employers, issues like wage increase, industrial actions will be no more.
Before now, we have had the First Industrial Revolution which used water and steam power to mechanise production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third with the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.
According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) Representative to ECOWAS and Regional Director of the Regional office Hub, Mr Jean Bakole, Industry 4.0 is the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies which creates a “smart factories”.
He said: ‘’The basic principle of Industry 4.0 is that by connecting machines, work pieces and systems, businesses are creating intelligent networks along the entire value chain that can control one another simultanously
He said the question therefore is, ‘can labour unions afford further job losses for their members at a time when most African countries are already grappling with the challenges of high unemployment? If job losses cannot be accommodated, what options are there for the labour unions?
The President, National Union of Chemical Footwear Rubber Leather and Non-Metallic Products Employees (NUCFRLANMPE), Com Babatunde Olatunji said the usage of machines has been reported to him by some of the members of the union working for some multinationals in the country.
As automation substitutes for labour across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by machines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labour. On the other hand, it is also possible that the displacement of workers by technology will, in aggregate, result in a net increase in safe and rewarding jobs.
A former Vice President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), and the Vice President, Industrial Global Union, Comrade Issa Aremu described the threat of the fourth revolution as one that cannot be wished away and if not well managed, industrial crisis will be the result.
Experts view and solution
Aremu, who doubles as the General Secretary, National Union of Garment and Textile Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN), agrees that although technology makes work easier, but it also could lead to job losses.
The labour leader cautioned that employers and governments should not criminalise skill gaps as a result of digitalisations of production. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, he further explained, calls for the need to develop skills and know-how by workers to work with digital technologies. Anything contrary, he submits, will mean that the majority of African workers will be relegated to the bottom of the technology and education chain.
‘’Businesses and owners of capital are employing robots, machines and computers to replace workers in order to maximise profits and lower wages or even deny paying all together. Whatever forms of industrialisation, first or fourth industrial revolution, there must be decent, sustainable jobs for the workers, with job security, living wages and living pensions. All unions should have audit of effects of the 4th Industrial revolution, of all workers,’’ Aremu said, adding that there should be education and re-training for the workers.
He said should it arise that employers will disengage staff, unions are not helpless if they are willing to engage with governments and businesses. He cited a case in South Africa where the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) engaged Volkswagen body shop that introduced more than 200 robots in the year 2016/17.
He said: “Management undertook skills audit of current artisans in the car body shop with management claiming that the skills of more than 40 artisans did not match the needs of the highly automated body shop. They claimed that the new body shop required electricians which the artisans did not have the electrical skills.
“NUMSA disagreed with the retrenchment and took the matter to Commission for Conciliation,Mediation and Abitration (CCMA) for facilitation and after lengthy negotiations an agreement was reached. All those electricians are now being re-trained on electrical skills so that they can be trade tested, this means two things; that their jobs are safe and they will also get a second trade.”
Other solutions according to him are that: “Workers should not be left behind because of a lack of education and training. They should be educated for the jobs of the future’’.
NUMSA President, Christine Olivier said aside re-skilling of workers, collective agreements that are in place should be defended.
She said: “ A list of future skills for future work should be developed and we need to know and do things that machines cannot do well. We have to define how we can work with these machines – Human machine partnership.
“ Defending and improvement of workers’ remuneration, benefits and working conditions with job security and other workers’ rights preserved and expand the number of jobs and Union capacity should strengthen”.
For Bakole, he proposed that labour unions should engage continually with their members on matters that will make employees fir for purpose.
By this, he said Labour unions need to increase the knowledge base of their members through training and retraining as well as by organizing educative forums such as this policy round-table.
Furthermore, trade unions need to encourage their members to obtain higher degrees and /or acquire mores skills and techniques that will keep them relevant at all times, he asserted.