THE BLOG
31/01/2018 04:59 SAST | Updated 31/01/2018 04:59 SAST

Decent Work In The Face Of The Fourth Industrial Revolution

It seems clear that technology will fundamentally alter the way in which we work, live and relate to one another.

Denis Balibouse/ Reuters
World Economic Forum (WEF) Executive Chairman and founder Klaus Schwab presents his book, 'The Fourth Industrial Revolution', during a news conference in Cologny, near Geneva, January 13, 2016.

Every human being aspires to something higher, to be more than the circumstances that surround them. The International Labour Organisation defines the concept of "decent work" as the ambitions of people in their working lives.

It would involve opportunities for work that are not only productive and deliver a fair income, but which include security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.

It recognises that workers and employees are human beings, not robots who are proverbially wheeled back into the cupboard after their work is done.

How do we implement these ideals in a country like South Africa, exactly where such a solid social compact is essential?

South Africa's unemployment rate is cataclysmic. According to the latest statistics by Statistics SA, South Africa's unemployment rate is a staggering 27.7 percent, as measured in the first three quarters of 2017. If those statistics are analysed further, our youth (people between the ages of 15 and 34) unemployment rate is at 38.6 percent. This is the age group that is meant to drive South Africa's future, but who can drive when caught in a poverty trap?

The world of work is changing rapidly. According to the World Economic Forum, the fourth industrial revolution is upon us. Although the exact scope and effect cannot yet be measured, it seems clear that technology will fundamentally alter the way in which we work, live and relate to each other.

The introduction of a minimum wage, as there will be in South Africa in 2018, will influence unemployment.

It is widely accepted that certain jobs will no longer exist, as technology brings with it an unprecedented new level of mechanisation. The world is moving at a previously unthinkable speed, and South Africa is grappling with a very unprepared potential workforce.

In South Africa, more than a third of people who have a senior certificate or lower level qualification are unemployed. More than 800,000 people are employed in the agricultural sector, and of these 800,000, only 58,000 are regarded as skilled labourers.

This means an overwhelming majority of people who are not skilled enough to be able to withstand a large-scale technological overhaul of the sector – which, although it cannot be predicted with certainty, is not impossible. Agriculture is also rapidly shedding jobs, at the rate of 109,000 this year alone.

South Africa has a past, and it certainly cannot be said that labour legislation was enacted for no reason. It further cannot be said that implementing minimum standards is in opposition to job creation: by arguing that point, it shows that there isn't the required maturity in employer-employee relationships to warrant a total removal of labour standards for the sake of job growth.

Productivity is a large concern – but it is often better addressed by better treatment, instead of punishment. The proper care of an employee's wellness will often result in heightened productivity.

The introduction of a minimum wage, as there will be in South Africa in 2018, will influence unemployment.

At this stage, it is almost impossible to predict what the outcome will be, but there certainly does not seem to be large-scale job creation underway in any sector. Rather, there is a panicked sense of reorganisation to hold on to current jobs and not shed any.

Through technology and connectedness, decent work can be achieved. It's the only way to ensure a ready workforce, and it is not anything to fear.

Given the background of facing an impending technological revolution with a workforce lacking in skills and an enforced national minimum wage, it appears clear that the recipe is not working. South Africa has a working class of poor people, drowning in debt and poorly equipped to deal with a rapidly changing world, let alone compete in it.

The government has not succeeded in providing a school system that leaves learners employable. Tertiary education is not necessarily within everyone's reach, both academically and financially, and should not be the only ticket to a rewarding career.

One potential solution lies in the private sector, which in its sector training initiatives has realised that input in the entire value chain of training will be necessary to ensure the availability of employable young people.

The golden thread remains technology: whether in farming, retail, mining or any other sector, we cannot remain behind the technology curve. Through technology and connectedness, decent work can be achieved. It's the only way to ensure a ready workforce, and it is not anything to fear.

Removing all checks and balances in the labour legislation environment is not the answer. Making technology cheap and accessible to everyone is. Focusing on a minimum wage that might cost jobs is not the answer – unions upskilling their members and connecting them through technology is.

The future is nanotechnology. It's synthetic biology and computational design.

Why are we still arguing about the number of casual workers on a farm?