The Social and Employment Cost of Innovation Highlights from South Africa’s Auto Industry

In South Africa, local operations of international motor manufacturing companies must constantly innovate to meet global demands and offer ambitious value. The way work is done is continuously changing. The current technologies adopted in the workplace are smarter than ever befor.

This movement, driven by economic forces, does not always lead to social improvements. Automation and the use of robots in manufacturing, combined with new working methods and systems, can have adverse social impacts on workers.

The adoption of technologies can at one point can relieve workers from strenuous tasks and boost productivity but will most likely also relieve man force of their jobs entirely.
A step to boost productivity and save costs, the global auto industry expects thousands of job losses with an estimation of 234 000 jobs cut by 2030 in Germany, 12 000 job cuts by Ford in Europe by the end of 2020, and 2 000 job losses in India by the end of 2020.

We examined in our research that the capacity of the auto workers’ trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, to collectively restructure the auto sector with management and benefit all stakeholders is depleted due to the coercive control of the management and top-down labour arrangement.

Innovation is the driving force of consumers and this is what management responds to. But instead of valuing innovation above all else, industrial policy-makers should earnestly examine how far it can boost the human condition before it becomes a problem by contributing to job losses, employment uncertainty, deskilling and inequality.

The quick fix would be to retain existing jobs, increase job opportunities, revamp industrial policy, reduce the rate of task allocation to technologies, and make the automobile sector’s production process more labour intensive than capital intensive.The state, car companies, unions, workers, consumers and society in general all have a task in effecting meaningful economic change and employment reform that is sustainable for all.

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