What Needs To Be Reimagined In Society?

By Neo Sithole

South Africa, since its birth as a democracy, has long faced an unemployment issue. Now, it must be understood that while employment, its provisions, types as well as unemployment remain an increasingly relevant issue, they are also historic ones. What we will discuss here is that with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the advancement of mechanised labour there is a pressing need to re-imagine and re-engineer the very notion of employment.

With the rapid development of technologies for business use and possible industry growth, as seen by Standard banks push for the digitalization of banking services resulting in the closures of 91 branches, impacting an approximate 1200 jobs, South Africa continues to find itself in a difficult position. With an unemployment rate sitting at 27% (around 6 million people), an all but stagnated economy coupled with a seemingly impenetrable job market South Africa stands at a juncture of needing to stabilize its employment market in a space where the face of and very nature of employment is changing. 

An article by Gary Field on unemployment in South Africa sites Unemployment must have both a narrow and broad understanding. The first is a narrow definition if one has not worked in the last seven days but has actively been looking for work. The second, being a much broader understanding are people not working but that would accept a suitable job if offered despite not actively looking, which in some cases includes season and contract workers. Again, with our focus on the reimagination of employment, the above understanding of employment is vital. What is also vital in understanding the working/labour structure in South Africa. 

Mining Deep, by Morely Nkosi, is a book that looks at South Africa’s labour structure which has, like the labour structures of most of the world, remained substantially the same. This ‘structure’ in South Africa’s case having its origins in the mining sector, can be and is found in almost all sectors of employment. 

The essential features of this structure are a forced labour system, brutal and violent suppression as well as the classification of jobs according to race, colour, gender, joined with the system of rewards and punishment. Now, it goes without saying that with the progression of South African society the essential features of the labour system have in some ways changed as well. Still, at the core, they retain the shape of what they were meant to be.

Graduates protesting the lack of jobs

Means of suppression have shifted from more severe things violence (physical) to contextually less severe things like warnings, threats of being fired and disciplinary action. However, in some cases, the suppression means to prove more than necessary in maintaining cordial labour relations and a somewhat harmonious workplace environment. Due to the violent, patriarchal and racial history of employment in South Africa the abuse of power, sexual harassment, unethical behaviour and racially/nationality-based occurrences (like a difference in pay, workload, and status) the means of suppression offer possible support to victims. The support is only actually effective in industries, companies and environments that actively attempt to rectify the imbalances in the workplace instead of using the suppression methods as a means to silence employees/workers unfairly in the interests of making more money (rare because industries operating in a capitalistic system will in many, almost all cases strive to increase profits at the cost of their labour force).

Other staples of the labour structure have remained the same as well, largely in industries and occupations classified as ‘unskilled’. Unskilled labour is understood as the sector of the workforce with a limited skill set or minimal economic value for the work performed, often characterised by lower perceived education (which is an archaic and problematic term but a conversation for a different day). Cases where employees and workers are either dismissed unfairly due to a dispute with their employer, take advantage of as a result of them needing the wage/salary to survive, rewarded with trivial and demeaning trinkets like clothes, old appliances and utensils instead of an increase in pay/ a bonus/ a promotion are still commonplace. As is the classification of jobs and tasks based on race, colour and gender. 

A rigid labour structure also remains intact in an era where the face and form of labour globally are evolving faster than most societies can foresee, thus effectively plan for. 

The changing nature of employment taking into consideration the introduction of technologies should alert society for the need to move towards more progressive and context appropriate employment practices. What I do mean by that? Well, what needs to be re-imagined is not only where people are employed but ‘how people are employed’.

The introduction of improved mechanised labour highlights two terrible things. The first is the outdated conditions of labour and the workplace. A staple of South African employment/labour is a ‘work floor’ labour practice. What I mean by this is the idea and practice of having your employees in a set place, for a set amount of time, where you can monitor their productivity which, backwardly, translates to an employer getting the most from employees. While this may be needed in some industries (like a financial industries where keeping an eye on the global market is best done in an office space with the tools, equipment and services provided to easily and effectively do so) it is becoming less and less needed in other industries (like that of sales, content creators, publications etc. South Africans in many cases are expected to continue with this work floor practice even though businesses seek to alter the way they do business (thus saving costs) without attempting to improve the work cultures their employees work in. 

The second thing that is highlighted is the outdated nature of employment.  Tech-savvy services and innovations remove the need for both an office and the workers that traditionally would occupy it. Large industries have already made this apparent, McDonald’s introduction of self-service machines, likely to spread to other fast food franchises, makes redundant people working the tills. Google’s newest addition to its business products, a virtual assistant that answers calls and mimics a human’s voice in the booking of appointment and provision of general information like operation times, staff availability, etc, threatens receptionists and call-centre workers. Companies that offer delivery services, like food, medicines, and packages will no longer have a need for delivery people with technologies for autonomous delivery robots making strides and piloted drones with the capabilities to carry goods becoming more common.

Essentially, albeit some time away, the very sector of unskilled labour reduced dramatically and made all but obsolete. Ironically, advancements in labour technologies put skilled labour at threat too. Traditionally secure and needed professionals like auditors will be forced to compete with already available software and technologies for auditing, potentially needing only the effective employment of a Chief Financial Officer and a handful of IT savvy auditors. A company’s auditing department of 50 dwarfed to a team of 8-10. 

Obviously the need to re-engineer employment stems from the critical fact that ,as the country’s employment situation stands now, the advancement of mechanized labour (its capacities and capabilities) will most likely exacerbate the unemployment issue, as result of mass lay-offs,  increasing the demand on an already monstrously strained social security structure (possibly resulting in its collapse). This is only avoidable with a robust and dynamic re-visitation of employment in South Africa. Something that cannot be ignored with this re-visitation to employment, is the need for the reengineering of the education and skills provided for the employment sectors. Another topic for a different conversation. 

Reimagining what employment looks like, in addition to avoiding a spike in unemployment, provides us with the opportunity to rethink labour forms and employment practices. Options of moving away from archaic and in many cases harmful working practices and conditions towards more wholesome and socially progressive ones become more realistic. Although the forced aspect of employment as a means of survival and prosperity in a capitalist economic order can’t be avoided or altered, Enhanced business technologies allow enterprises and their staff the luxury of a more dispersed, friendly and cost-effective workplace. Access to a stable internet connection regardless of location should allow employees the ability to remain productive while saving employers costs on offices spaces and utilities. Nonetheless, this is heavily dependent on the rethinking the value or work done by employees, conceivably detaching the value of work (thus salary earned) from time in office and shifting the value towards the calibre of work and basic productivity. With a little creativity, this could allow for a rejuvenated approach the concepts of worth in relation to the job being done, promoting more enthusiastic employees. Again, the availability of this possibility is limited to very few professions, but this may change when with the changing nature of employment.  

The re-thinking of employment extends to the suitability of jobs as well. One issue that contributes the unemployment rates is the existence of jobs that are unsuitable. Here, what unsuitable refers to are jobs that are exploitative, do not offer fair remuneration for the work required, do not allow people to make use of the skills studied and acquired, or do not allow people to maintain a decent standard of living. As mentioned before mechanised labour threatens to replace unskilled labour, interestingly, in most cases the jobs under unskilled labour are not suitable jobs as well. The re-conception of what a suitable job is and the creation of suitable jobs to allow people to feel that they are not only in an occupation they are suited for but also providing the skills they acquired to whichever firm/company/enterprise they are employed with will undoubtedly create avenues for increased feelings of satisfaction when coming to being employed and doing their desired jobs. 

Ultimately, irrespective of the field or form of employment, employment must be creatively challenged and extensively redesigned. Not only to carve out a pathway to a more socially progressive, healthy, wholesome employment sector but also as a requirement for a less frustrating social system.


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