AI impact on ‘decent work’?


Dr Ivor Blumenthal | CEO | ArkKonsult | mail me

Is AI incompatible with policies for labour growth and does it forespell the introduction of the basic income grant?

Consultants across the globe continue to debate the opportunities, limitations and merits of implementing Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions. They engage, argue and agree to disagree on the inevitable effect which AI will have on the labour market and the number of people employed in Decent Work.

Decent work and technology

Decent Work is a term coined by the International Labour Organisation, indicating meaningful, sustainable work as opposed to slavery at worst and unchallenging routine, repetitive and mundane work best left to non-human intervention at best.

Countries which have endorsed the Decent Work protocol of the ILO have all committed to ensuring that they implement interventions designed to improve the quality of jobs available and to inculcate a sense of meaningful contribution amongst those employed in such jobs.

A basic income grant

The latest politically correct mechanism being proposed across the globe now, is that of a ‘Basic Income Grant’.

It is being suggested that Governments across the world will have to subsidise those laid-off and losing their jobs in the aftermath of Technology and AI solutions making their way into every conceivable workplace barring-none. This trend, it is envisaged will cause millions in every country to become unemployed and worse, unemployable in this tide caused by technological advancements, which is truly only now being felt around the world. This tsunami of effect started in the Services Sector, including Contact Centres and the Banking Industry, but has now spread to almost every workplace, and every conceivable job in those workplaces.

The argument from companies which have jumped onto the bandwagon of implementing AI solutions, is that AI is not meant to replace labour. They argue that instead AI is meant to free up the time of those already employed, from routine administrative functions so that they can better and more freely apply their minds. Proponents of AI argue for post-school education to be in the humanities, the arts and to include right-brain applications in philosophy, psychology and the-like. This argument has more to do with productivity and profitability than it has to do with improving the quality of work and ensuring that all workplaces become decent working forums.

Employers are entitled to be profit-driven. They are entitled to trim their workforce to cut redundancy and fat out. That is their right. But for Owners of businesses and Boards of Directors to argue that somehow, they have taken the noble route?

In South Africa, the latest announcement has come from MultiChoice which has announced it will be laying 2,000 call centre operators off, it appears in the aftermath of the ‘Bottinisation’ of those services. Many other large Employers are considering doing the same, particularly in the Banking and Services Sectors.

Richard Branson is quoted as saying that he thinks that with the coming on of AI and other things there is certainly a danger of income inequality which will be caused by “the amount of jobs [artificial intelligence] is going to take away”. Branson argues that a “basic minimum earnings,” or a universal basic income grant, should be instituted “so that there is nobody that is having to sleep on the street”.

Ironically Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have all agreed unanimously with the need for a Universal Income Grant becoming a Human Right in the face of the advancement of Technology. Ironic, because it is this collective which continues to advance technology and its application into every part of every economy, and which then lays the responsibility for compensating for the problems which they have all, even if inadvertently, caused, at Governments feet to deal with.

There are few Governments which can afford to introduce a supplementary budget to cover the proposed Basic Income Grant. Those few individuals such as Zuckerberg or Gates, who own Technology IP, or companies such as Microsoft, Apple, SAP, etc. are never going to agree to increase their taxation levels voluntarily. They are never going to agree to stop diverting their profits offshore or into Tax Safe Havens and back to the countries of origin. As a result therefore, the income base of those countries under pressure to introduce such Grants are not going to increase proportionately, thereby making provision for such payments possible.

Labour absorption versus capitalisation

Technological Advancements are not a Labour Absorption Strategy but one dealing more with Productivity, Efficiency and Profit which by its very definition is incompatible with labour consolidation or growth. Ai presents a Capitalisation option for Business Shareholders, not one for Labour Growth.

Trade union apathy or have they succumbed?

The second realisation is that Technological Advancement is not compatible with Trade Unionism or Collective Bargaining and yet, whereas you would expect Organised Labour unanimously across the Globe to be hard-at-work devising strategies to manage the negative consequences of Technological Advancements on their membership.

Organised Labour is noticeable by its absence and deafening silence from this debate. It seems that there is little innovation, imagination or articulation in the corridors of the average Trade Union or Federation, anywhere in the world when it comes to combatting what will become an overwhelming and irreversible problem, very soon. Trade Unions seem to ignore the axiomatic truth that machines do not join Unions or pay dues.

In South Africa, where Organised Labour is formally regarded as a Social Partner with Business and Government, one would have expected far more advocacy and initiative, from the likes of COSATU and FEDUSA than the rhetoric and narrative of only words being offered, with no matching actions. This could be interpreted as the deer in the headlights or possibly that leaders of Organised Business have themselves been captured by the proponents of AI and Technology.

The question begging is whether when it comes to change, either NEDLAC which is where policy is negotiated and legislation suggested in South Africa, or Parliament itself has either the capacity or more importantly the competency to deal with these pressing issues or whether they are simply there to pay Lip Service about a horse which has long-bolted?




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