Technology changes the future of work in Sub-Sahara Africa

In the absence of any re-skilling initiatives for workers, suggests Keith Jacobs of UNI Global Union, digitalisation of work practices will have negative effect in some sectors in Sub-Saharan Africa, where FES works with partners to support trade unions and shop stewards' networks around global retails companies

Shoppers entering and leaving a busy branch of Pick'nPay supermarket, by iStock.com / RapidEye


Digitalisation has negatively affected employment in some sectors covered by UNI Global Union, a global union federation for skills and services. The advent of email communication saw several postal workers face retrenchment because of lower levels of letter deliveries. The automization within the banking sector also saw fewer bank workers in branches. With the introduction of mobile phones, fixed-line operators saw a reduction in the demand for phones, in particular in households. Workers employed in the newspaper sector also experienced a reduction in employment as readers tend to read newspapers online.

Technological changes have not spared workers in Sub-Saharan Africa 

Automation and the digitalisation of work practices have not yet negatively affected employment in low-income jobs in UNI sectors in the African Continent. The decline in employment was mostly experienced in middle-income jobs. On the contrary, an increase in employment was experienced in the retail, private security and contract cleaning sectors. These sectors in the main are where we find low-income and vulnerable forms of employment. This is mainly due to the formalisation of the retail sector as well as an increase in the demand for private security services at mines, banks and shopping centres.

Digitalisation has had a negative impact in the jobs landscape in Sub-Sahara Africa particularly in the post, telecoms, banking and print newspaper sectors. These were the main middle-income employment sectors, with fairly good benefits afforded to workers. Most of these workers were unable to find the same type of jobs again, and this was made worse in the absence of any re-skilling initiatives for workers.

Automation and the retail sector

Pick n Pay recently introduced self-service tills at one of their stores in Cape Town as a pilot project. This was met with resistance from the UNI affiliate the South African Catering Commerce and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU). The union cited the lack of consultations and the potential job losses due to the new technology as the main reasons for them resisting its implementation. The union and Pick n Pay chief executive met after the union declared a dispute. The parties are still in consultations on how best to avert and/or minimize any potential job losses.

The digitalisation and robotization of work in most sectors of the economy is on the increase as the world is engulfed in the 4th Industrial revolution. UNI Global Union has taken the fight to include labour in meaningful consultation to the International Labour Organization, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and even Google. UNI called on law makers and the business fraternity to invest in the re-skilling of workers, and for law makers to introduce tougher measures to ensure data protection. UNI called for a solutions summit to be held in October 2017 at the head offices in Nyon, Switzerland to develop a comprehensive and coherent labour response to the negative impact of the elements of the 4th industrial revolution.

UNI Sectors are in the process of developing strategies on how to organize the new forms of employment in the services sectors. Already in the retail sector, workers are more and more located in warehouses like Amazon as oppose to shopping malls where access to them for UNI and other union representatives is easier. We also find that platform jobs in the information and technology sector is on the rise and new ways to organize these workers must be found to ensure that they become part of a collective. ###  

Keith Jacobs is regional secretary of UNI Africa. FES Connect thanks Bastian Schulz, director of the Trade Union Competence Centre by FES in Johannesburg for facilitating this contribution. 



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