What changes will automation bring to our lives and societies? What will we do when our jobs become redundant? We must be asking these questions right now because tomorrow might be too late.
Raisa Galea speaks to Josef Bugeja, General Workers’ Union Secretary General about prospects of automation in Malta.
Image: Geralt / Pixabay (colorized)
Raisa Galea: Analysts estimate that up to 1-in-3 jobs worldwide could be automated within the next decade. Although new jobs will be created, there won’t be as many.
There has been no discussion about the challenges of automation in Malta, although the country is developing its own digital sector and has ambitions in AI development. How soon will Malta’s labour market feel the effect of automation?
Josef Bugeja: There certainly hasn’t been much debate on automation, although it is a development that affects us all. The nature of work and economic contract, which governs relations between employers and employees and which is based on national and international laws, is now changing. Automation is not a new issue. What is novel about its contemporary stage is the scale.
Automation is part of disruption introduced by the tech companies like Uber and Amazon which have reshaped the concept of economic contract.
I was following the case of Uber in the United Kingdom. The drivers, according to the company, are not employees and the company is not their employer. The factual employer is the smartphone application which connects drivers with passengers. In technical terms, the app allocates tasks to drivers, thus, Uber insists, the company only facilitates a transaction between a service provider and a customer. Drivers, on the other hand, are encouraged to consider themselves as self-employed. And if a Uber driver is not considered as an employee, he is not entitled to any social security.
Unfortunately, we are largely unprepared to the changes that automation will bring. First and foremost, automation means that fewer persons will find employment opportunities and that existing employees will be replaced by apps, where possible.
In Malta, warehouses have become almost completely automated. Although all their personnel was retrained and engaged in other tasks, this is not a common practice worldwide. Most definitely, more jobs than ever will become automated in the coming decade.
Are we prepared to address these changes in the industry? Is our educational system prepared for these changes in the job market? Do we have a long term strategy? It does not seem so.
Is our educational system prepared for the changes in the job market that automation will bring? Do we have a long term strategy? It does not seem so.
It’s important to keep in mind that manual work is not the only kind of work that will become automated. Medical doctors, journalists, lawyers, too, will have to compete with Artificial Intelligence.
Certainly, automation does not stop at replacing bus drivers with self-driving vehicles. Other professions will also be affected. But let us focus on this specific case of drivers: what will they do if their jobs are automated? If someone was trained to drive a bus and possesses no other professional skills, they may not be able to switch to other kind of work easily.
Creative fields such as writing, music, performance and other sectors of culture industry are less likely to be affected by automation, but a bus driver whose job will become redundant may not become an artist overnight, or may not even be willing to join the creative industry.
Definitely. Not everyone is suitable for technology-related jobs either. We cannot pretend that everyone whose job was driving a bus would be engaged in blockchain or cryptocurrency industry, for instance. However, Malta’s size could be an obstacle to complete automation of manual work. At this moment, it is cheaper to employ workers than machines. Introducing expensive technology to Malta is not yet profitable for the industry.
Since job is a source of income, losing it would also mean being unable to sustain a living. What is the GWU’s position on Universal Basic Income (UBI)? Which measure would the union recommend in the wake of automation—UBI or job guarantee.
I believe that a job gives dignity to a person. Without a job, a person may feel useless and purposeless, unless they choose leisure deliberately.
Another aspect to consider is how automation and job loss will affect the economy. In the current consumer-oriented economic setup, fewer jobs mean fewer consumers and, thus, fewer customers. Those whose jobs will become redundant—and who will not be able to find another employment opportunity—will have no money to spend.
Most certainly, the government must guarantee dignified living to everyone at risk of losing their source of income. A Universal Basic Income is indeed an option to consider. In any case, this UBI must cover basic expenses and ensure decent standards of living. Persons with no steady income would be forced into extreme poverty or criminal activity.
The government must guarantee dignified living to everyone at risk of losing their source of income. A Universal Basic Income is indeed an option to consider.
Alternatively, the government might consider a job guarantee scheme to secure income. We need quality jobs that give meaning to our lives, not just employment.
Introducing a UBI would mean additional taxation of businesses and, expectedly, they would rebel against it. However, we must remember that we live in a society and not in a jungle ruled by the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle. Margaret Thatcher famously stated that there’s no such thing as society. This is absolutely wrong. Since automation will negatively affect many of us, businesses, too, must act responsibly and ensure that the society we live in is fair for everybody.