The Robots are taking over by underground

A few weeks back, whilst interning at the New Zealand Herald, I wrote a story on the changes to Auckland and Manukau Cities’ residential recycling system. Switching from plastic crates to wheelie bins, collection trucks would use a mechanical arm to collect the bins, replacing the guys who throw the rubbish into the truck manually. The trucks will now only need to be manned by one person, the driver, leaving two or three people on the truck out of a job. The companies involved told me that they would try move staff into other areas if operation (either commercial collection or other regions of Auckland) as best they could, but it was likely that around 60 people would be out of a job.

At the time, as much as sympathised with those losing their jobs (I spoke to few on the streets out east), I was not too sure it was such an important story, as council contracts must change all the time, some people must lose jobs, but others surely gain them in the process. The new recycling plant must be employing a fair few people too. But the story is not about contracts, or even the fact jobs are lost. It is how they are lost. The robots are taking over.

We all enjoy the benefits of technology. We like the convenience and efficiency of machines doing the tings we don’t want to. Business like the cost cutting opportunities technology affords them. Why pay staff to do something a machine will do for free? Eventually the machine will pay for itself. As a result jobs that existed 50 years ago do not exist today. Jobs that exist today may not be around in 50 years time. You can now go grocery shopping and avoid all human contact, with self-service checkouts. But what of those out of work?

The jobs that can be undertaken by machines are usually laborious, monotonous and undesirable for most. It’s not that long ago I worked at Paknsave ($7.25 an hour!), and many of the checkout girls, and they are almost always female, I spoke to hated the repetitive work, with managers breathing down their necks and shitty customers across the till. Let them serve themselves! But most of the girls were students, either at college or university and, like everyone else in that horrible yellow building, needed the money to get by. And these jobs are well suited for students, with night shifts and usually flexible hours ideal for those with classes during the day. But apart from that, it does upset me slightly that hundreds of people work those jobs full time, and may do so for most, if not all of their working lives. Having worked many years in retail, three of them full time, I know how demoralising such work can be. But not as demoralising as having no work. Curiously enough, the branch I worked at maybe five years ago is staffed almost entirely by migrants. If you are new to a country (and I speak not from experience) you need to get employed, not just to live, but also to feel part of the society and to meet people. Otherwise I imagine you would feel further outcast and alienated. And it is migrants and the socially disadvantaged who tend to work the low skilled jobs which risk being automated.

Unemployment is remarkably low in this country. With employment come self worth and a feeling of being part of society. Such things are vital to people’s health, to their likelihood of committing crime (Despite the hysteria about crime…) and to the psyche of a community. Technological advances may bring efficiency and convenience, but at what cost? Jobs? Lives? Who suffers? Is cost cutting worth cutting people off from society?

Yay for capitalism!


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