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Robotics and the challenge of job creation

By Collins Olayinka, Abuja
04 June 2019   |   3:08 am
One modern phenomenon that is sending fears down the spines of labour unions across the world is robotics. Robotics is a genre of automation and engineering field that is fast replacing human physical strength in the production of goods and services. In modern airports around the world, automation has taken the place of human beings…

Peters Adeyemi

One modern phenomenon that is sending fears down the spines of labour unions across the world is robotics.

Robotics is a genre of automation and engineering field that is fast replacing human physical strength in the production of goods and services.

In modern airports around the world, automation has taken the place of human beings as far as check-in processes are concerned. Human interventions are shrinking in most of the checking in processes such as baggage weights to printing of boarding pass, which result in direct job losses.

Indeed, robots have emerged as ‘rivals’ to human beings as far as undertaking of tasks are concerned, as they can now replicate almost any form of human activity. For instance, they are now popularly employed in danger-prone endeavours such as bomb detection and de-activation of life-threatening activities.

There lies the fear of workers as expressed by labour unions especially in the developing countries.

To the average Nigerian, robots are nothing but some mechanical configurations that are domiciled within the laboratory rooms used for experimentation. But this thinking appears obsolete, as the modern age engages in continual metamorphosis that seeks to further isolate the human person even when the final outcome of the efforts are geared towards enhancing the value of the collective comfort of the human race.

The General Secretary, Non-Academic Staff Union and Associated Institutions (NASU), Peters Adeyemi, noted that while the fears that automation may lead to job losses in Africa and other developing countries, massive job losses have not been recorded in developed countries that have deployed robotics in most economic areas.

He said: “The usage of automation to do jobs that human beings were hitherto doing, is a phenomenon that is already happening in Europe and some parts of Asia. But don’t forget that Europe has moved so much ahead of Africa in terms of employment and unemployment rate. There are some countries in Europe where the rate of employment is virtually zero.

So, this issue of automation taking over the jobs human beings are doing has been on for years and there has not been statistics or data to show that even in the developed economies where automation is happening that jobs are already being lost. I must quickly add that that is not to say that automation is not a threat to jobs globally.

In our own situation, we must admit that automation will pose a threat though not an immediate threat because things that are needed to ensure automation runs smoothly are not on ground here.”

Adeyemi also pointed out that lack of stable electricity would hugely inhibit the functionality of an automated industrial space.

He posited that although government seems not to be ready to automate the industrial space, such a move would lead to mass unemployment and aggravate insecurity in the country.

“That will also translate to government abdicating its responsibility of making life better for the citizenry because in Nigeria, government remains the main employer of labour. So, if government does that, how will they fulfil their campaign promises as contained in their party manifestos? For me, automation is threat for the future and not a threat to the present,” he stated.

Adeyemi, who insisted that workers are always ready to adapt as societies evolve, also said: “we cannot be talking about that now because there are a whole lot of dynamics that are involved in this discussion. There was a time when Nigerian workers were using typewriters, and there were questions about their readiness to embrace computers. But today, they are using computers and most of them no longer know how to use typewriters if given one today.”

But the immediate past Director-General, Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA), Olusegun Oshinowo, admonished labour unions to prepare for a different world of work that is emerging.

As the line between employer and employer grows thinner, Oshinowo urged the Nigerian Government to get its workforce ready for the future of work that would rely on innovation and technology, and the one that would present fluid interchanges between an employer and an employee.

He explained: “Let anyone say whatever they want about automation taking jobs, that line of thought will not stop the world from deploying technology and innovation. My opinion is to ask how Nigeria can get her people ready for the automation technology.

While technology may take away jobs, technology will also create jobs in other sectors of the economy. What we should be focusing on is, will we still be able to get future workers to be interested in the kinds of services that would be required in the future because the future will require knowledgeable workers whose bargaining powers as individuals would be huge that some of them would ask if they actually need a union? So, unions themselves would have to start reconsidering its value proposition in that new context or else they would completely transform into irrelevance. As it is for the unions, so it is for employers’ and organisations.”

Oshinowo said all the major stakeholders must prepare for the world of work that is rapidly evolving.

He said: “The dynamics of the economy and the forces that are shaping globalisation are such that a future world of work would not be a future that would be synonymous with the type of employment we have now. When people come out to talk about contract staffing or outsourcing, then they are missing the point. This is because these are just forms of employment and the fact that they are forms of employment should not disqualify them as decent work.

“The future of work may not necessarily mean that somebody would have to report in a physical space to resume at 8am and close at 5pm. Indeed, we do not have the terminologies to describe some of the forms of employment that will emerge in the next 20 to 50 years. The reality is that it will certainly happen. The form it will take, nobody knows.”
Oshinowo warned that the world of work would be so fluid in the future that there would be thin line between employer and employee.

He added: “A time will come when it will be difficult to define whether someone is an employer or is an employee. So, our issue is simply is the imperative for a strong regulation, a strong inspection that will ensure that wherever employment emerges, that work is considered to be decent. For me, that should be the focus and not on whether somebody is on a regular, pensionable employment or on a short contract. That is what we know now, but there are other forms of employment that are on their way.”

The immediate past Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, had said while it would be unlawful for a government to legislate automation out of existence, the Federal Government would soon raise a team to brainstorm on the best way to prepare Nigerians for the challenge.

He said: “Technology is advancing and there is no way anybody can stop it. But we recognise the fact that the use of robot and machines by companies are taking away manual jobs.

While government cannot make law to stop the use of technology in any sector, we are currently brainstorming on how best to tackle the challenge in such a way that we achieve a win-win situation. We are going to invite the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA), Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), and the Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs), so we can have an enlarged discussion around the development.”