While the government sees new technologies as an opportunity to innovate, it will ensure that changes around automation do not impact the local labour market, says Employment and Labour minister Thulas Nxesi.
“Automation is an enabler of innovation and not the other way round, it is important to understand that fact. After we have understood that, we must then grasp other facts that, economies are stimulated and driven by innovation,” Nxesi said in a recent parliamentary Q&A.
“If we speak about change, change should not be for the sake of change but it should be adapted to the needs of the economy and its population. There is a notion that has become a cliché that speaks about change because somewhere someone is talking about change rather than change dictated by our own environment.”
Nxesi added that president Cyril Ramaphosa has established a commission to assist the government in taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital industrial revolution. The commission will further identify relevant policies, strategies and action plans that will position South Africa as a competitive global player, he said.
“The work of the commission will be tabled at Nedlac for further discussion on how to come up with policies that will respond to the changes in the labour market as well as how to upskill, reskill and produce future skills that will be needed by the economy.”
“As a country that is grappling with unemployment, we must ensure that change does not exclude our people in the world of work but enhance their productivity, mobility and speaks to the needs of the population.”
The jobs most at risk of automation
A 2021 report by the OECD estimates that 14% of jobs are at a high risk of automation. However, at the country level, a higher risk of automation was not associated with lower employment growth over the period.
This might be because automation promotes employment growth by increasing productivity, although other factors are also at play, the group said.
At the occupational level, however, employment growth was much lower in occupations at high risk of automation (6%) than in occupations at low risk (18%).
The OECD data shows more labour-intensive jobs – such as food preparation assistants, assemblers and hunters – are at the most risk of automation. At the other end of the scale, chief executives, senior officials and legislators are least likely to lose their jobs to automation.
“Low-educated workers were more concentrated in high-risk occupations in 2012 and have become even more concentrated in these occupations since then. The low growth in jobs in high-risk occupations has not led to a drop in the employment rate of low-educated workers. This is largely because the number of workers with a low education has fallen in line with the demand for these workers.
“Going forward, however, the risk of automation is increasingly falling on low-educated workers and the Covid-19 crisis is likely to accelerate automation, as companies reduce reliance on human labour and contact between workers, or re-shore some production.”