I have been researching the human cost of manufacture and it dawns on me that the information I can find is the tiny tip of an enormous iceberg. The problems run very deep and it seems like we’re always making things worse.
Everyone says that automation is the future of manufacture. They shout about how efficient it will be, how cheap, how fantastic for our economy. Sometimes they even shout about how great it will be for the workers who will be liberated from the drudgery and hazards of factory life.
But what would the consequences of automation really be?
Well, as far as I can see the introduction of automation to replace the foreign worker would be extremely damaging. Why?
We have put a number of developing countries in a position where they are completely dependent of the export of goods to the West, i.e. they are completely dependent on the export of their cheap labour. What this means is that if we, the West, remove our need for their labour with the introduction of automation then we will cripple these countries almost overnight. Automation of manufacture, as well as the automation of other areas could put two thirds of the jobs in developing countries at risk.
The result would be a massive vacuum, millions of workers suddenly without work. Workers who have spent years being underpaid and so have absolutely no disposable (or otherwise) income to spend at home. With the opportunity to create jobs through export ripped away they would have to try and set up businesses selling goods nationally, but because so many are unemployed very few will be able to buy anything and so without demand new industries will struggle get set-up and function. That of course assumes that someone is willing to invest at all.
In the past automation has enabled rapid growth but when a country is exporting its labour rather than its goods, automation makes them defunct. A country has to be in charge of it’s own production before automation can help it.
Although automation might be the right thing for us (though I don’t think it is), it definitely isn’t for them. Before we should even consider automating the workforce provisions need to be made and structures put in place to support the people being cast aside.
When the time comes I’d like to think that the companies with manufacturers overseas will support or invest in the workers they dump. I’d love to imagine that they’ll phase it out, talk with the governments who have been working with them, and protecting their interests for so long to ensure the impact of a mass industry exodus is kept under control. But I think we all know that’s not likely.
When people are left without a job and without money they become an easy target for traffickers, desperation and poverty are how slavery begins, and complete automation of the overseas workforce will will produce just that.