Fourth Industrial Revolution

A lot of my work in recent years has been to work for the eradication of Forced Labour in India. The approach favoured in my set up ( and in many others) is what has come to be termed as a “ Raid and Rescue” approach.  An establishment where Forced Labour is identified, a rescue team comprising or at least accompanied by government officials lands up there ; somewhat like an income search and seizure operation. The labourers are rounded up. A spot enquiry is then held to determine if prima facie evidence exists that that the labourers indeed were made to work in exploitative conditions. If this is proved, the labourers are released to go home and the owner of the establishment arrested as a perpetrator and subsequently tried. 

I have for long argued on some what different lines. The reason d’être of Forced Labour is economic. It is a lot cheaper to employ labourers and exploit them and then pay them the regular prescribed minimum wages. But if a cheaper way were to be found, then possibly forced labour would be a thing of the past. The answer came at a conference of activists of those working to eradicate forced labour in the brick kiln industry. Being a season industry, the sector is notorious for employing forced labour and extracting the maximum mileage from them when the kilns are operational by making them work long hours and paying them sub par wages. 

In a meeting of activists working in the brick kiln industry and trying to get them fair wages, I once met a man who owned brick kilns. This was an unusual occurrence . The relationship between activists and owners could be compared to  a snake and mongoose relationship – sworn enemies with entirely different agendas. 

But this man seemed different. He was mingling freely and was fully at ease. I caught up with him over tea one day to figure out what was different about him. His story was fascinating and revelatory. He candidly mentioned that about a decade or so ago, he too employed bonded labourers as was the practice. But a chance meeting changed everything. He met with a medium sized cement manufacturer which was also into the building industry and needed a constant supply of bricks. The company agreed to buy all his bricks , but they wanted some quality control. They had no use of manually made bricks of varying sizes and shapes. They needed more precision .

His purchaser was willing to provide him a soft loan so that he could eliminate most of the manual processes involved and mechanise his brick kiln. This would allow him to not only increase the capacity of the kiln but also improve quality. Once the machinery was in place, he just needed a few workers to supervise the machinery. He got rid of the workers he had been using thus far  except for a few who operated the machinery and the ignominy of producing bricks using forced labour. 

A few years later he had another windfall. The cement company was acquired by a European multinational.  The owner’s purchases arrangements were not disturbed ; in fact his bricks would now be sourced from his kiln and exported to Europe. However the new owners wanted even higher quality for the export markets and had helped him with an even more precise technology  – robotics. Another soft loan and out went the machinery and the machine operators and in came robots, driven not by supervisors but by software.

His margins and profits increased by leaps and bounds. But then he leaned in and whispered there was a problem.  Many of his former employees had approached him saying that ever since they had been laid off, they had not found any other jobs.This put him in a dilemma. By adapting to technology and adapting to a modern world, he had certainly achieved much success. He no longer employed slave labour and in anti slavery circles he could walk with his head held high.  But his once exploited workers were now on the brink of starvation. This had led to a piquant situation. And thus over a cup of tea in a conference setting, I was introduced to the concept of the 4th industrial disruption. 

The global labour market is increasingly adopting new technology. New technology makes it easier for companies to automate routine tasks and will disrupt the balance between job responsibilities completed by humans and those completed by machines and algorithms. My brick kiln owner  and his robots are just a foretaste of what is to come.With smart technology becoming more mainstream, we need to consider the impact that this new technology will have on our society and workforce.

Transformations and disruptions are already occurring within labour markets across the world. Over the last twenty years, the use of new technology has caused some roles to disappear while also creating new, previously unheard of job titles. For example, the rise of online flight comparison sites has drastically reduced the number of physical travel agents and advancements in mobile technology has made switchboard operators obsolete. On the other hand, technological advancements have also led to the emergence of brand new job titles like app developers, social media marketers, and data scientists.

Whether autonomous machines are a good or bad thing, largely depends on who you ask. Some visualise  a nightmarish world straight out of a Sci-Fi film where robots have taken all the jobs leaving people unemployed and distraught. Without meaningful work , our lives would become drudgery leading to widespread public unrest. Others, most, believe that robots would eliminate the menial and repetitive elements of our work and allow us to focus on more creative and experiential  tasks leading to a generally  happier and more productive society. Anyhow, once the fourth industrial revolution has reached its zenith, it’ll impact nearly every industry in every country. The Economist predicts that 50% of jobs are susceptible to automation and eventual elimination. However, some industries are more likely to be automated than others as robots, like human employees, can do some jobs better than others. roles that involve recognising cultural sensitivities, caring for others, creative or complex reasoning or perception and manipulation are unlikely to be automated. So, social workers, nurses, nuclear engineers, teachers and politicians won’t be replaced by robots any time soon. The discussion about the consequences of Industry 4.0 in the World Economic Forum in Davos (2016) concluded that about 7 million jobs are at risk in the next 5 years with women being more affected.

Within the near future, we can expect to see a reduction in the number of full-time staff in manufacturing and agricultural roles as many of these positions are already being phased out due to increased automation. Robots can also more effectively and safely handle tasks within industrial plants and as such their use in manufacturing has already many decades by now.  While in an interconnected world , such spillovers across countries are unavoidable ,can we prepare. Remember, the dynamics really started to change for my brick kiln owner company when his purchaser got acquired by an European company and he had little or no say in how to run his business any more.  To stay around, he had to agree to be a small pawn in the global construction business .  He was nimble enough to adapt and see the writing on the wall. But the workers he employed, without opportunities to retool and resell were on the verge of starvation. The message is clear – while the future of work for us will never be precisely clear, like the weather forecaster, we need to learn to be stargazers so that we can be prepared and have our umbrellas ready when it begins to pour.

Dr Shantanu Dutta , a former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for the last few decades.


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