OPINION: Machines a growing threat to jobs

CAPE TOWN – Since 2018 McDonald’s in South Africa has been undergoing a shift from humans to machines serving customers. 

This is the beginning of a process that might just lead to the company having very limited human beings and more machines.

Here’s what McDonald’s chief executive Steve Easterbrook said to shareholders last year to explain this shift:

“Customers at thousands of our restaurants are appreciating a more enjoyable, personalised and seamless experience. We’ll continue introducing these improvements to thousands more restaurants as we scale the Experience of the Future platform, with enhancements such as digital menu boards, self-order kiosks, greater hospitality and a modernised look.”

The self-serve kiosks have been tested in hundreds of US McDonald’s over the past few years and are already widely in place in Europe and other parts of the world.

Many will argue that this shift means the end of work for some workers at McDonald’s and this view is correct. What has not been said enough yet is that this also means more (free) work for consumers.

Here is what is really happening at corporations that are automating work. The consumer now has to do everything with limited or no service from a human being. The consumer has to be the cashier as well and suffer the consequences when the machine does not deliver.

This is great for the capitalists. It means lower costs as there are fewer people to pay and fewer people to protest. The machine only needs maintenance and no salary and it rarely complains about working ridiculous hours.

The strange aspect of this shift at McDonald’s is that the consumers still pay the same or more, even though the customers do the work for free.

The automation at establishments such as McDonald’s, while it leads to loss of jobs, creates an opportunity for businesses that offer personal services to customers.

As businesses are automating, using machines and robots, some customers will demand more human interaction. In the long run, businesses that offer personalised care will thrive and be able to charge a premium for their services.

What now for displaced workers?

What about workers who will be replaced by the automation process? This is the question that should occupy the minds of policy makers in South Africa. McDonald’s is just one restaurant chain that has begun with the automation process, but it won’t be the last.

As more businesses in the services sector automate, there’s a need for an urgent intervention to save jobs. For McDonald’s employees the impact of the 4th Industrial Revolution will not be felt in the next 10 years, but sooner.

The intervention to assist workers, who may be displaced by automation, ought to start now. At the very least, it may be necessary to re-skill such workers for new work. It may also be necessary to create more awareness about people who are already loosing work due to automation and match them to companies that need their skills.

Someone once said the unemployment of young people in South Africa is the ticking time bomb. Now there’s a second ticking bomb and it’s the displacement of workers by automation.

Wesley Diphoko is the editor-in-chief of The Infonomist and founder of Kaya Labs. You can follow him via Twitter via: @WesleyDiphoko


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