Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Cheapening of Labour- Part 2

I think (but can’t prove) that Ghandi once said that the problem facing India at the time of their independence wasn’t one of “mass production”, but rather of “production for the masses”. He saw the vast tide of humanity that needed gainful employment and the opportunities for betterment that accompanied it.

He was swimming against the tide.
In the West, mass production was all the rage. Kurt Vonnegut’s excellent book “Player Piano” published in 1952 railed against the idea that machines would take over the repetitive tasks like machining metal parts for automobiles, leaving the machinist unemployed. Vonnegut’s book comes highly recommended. I won’t spoil your future enjoyment by revealing the ending but he made a valid point.
Did those with power and influence heed Vonnegut or Ghandi?

Did they hell! Walk through any car plant today and observe the computer controlled robots doing work once done by humans. When I worked at a brand new factory in Northampton almost 40 years ago a whole floor of the office block was filled with accounts staff. The factory is long gone but the office block, built for one firm, now houses a host of companies, each one occupying a single office, each one equipped with computers more powerful than NASA used for the moon landings.
When I worked in a bank almost 50 years ago we had a dozen staff to operate the machines that processed cheques and punched data to be transmitted to the Bank’s computer. In today’s bank there is no back office. The cashier enters the information at her till position.
Once upon a time (in fact only about twenty five years ago), the boss of a company would have a secretary and the use of a pool of typists, who would type letters for him to sign. These days he’s likely to type them himself.
A few short years ago the supermarkets started installing self service tills, ostensibly to speed the customer through the checkouts. A single member of staff would be on hand in case the customer got into difficulty. The reality was that for every two self service checkouts they could get rid of one member of staff.

All through the last sixty or so years traditional jobs have been disappearing at an alarming rate. In the UK we’ve lost all the metal bashing industries as plastics and micro electronics have changed every kind of tool or gadget or vehicle. Cars are smaller and lighter, but are also faster and more economic. Technology has changed our world more swiftly and more dramatically than the Industrial Revolution of two centuries ago. And the biggest change has been the loss of jobs.

The current unemployment, especially across Southern Europe is a sign of things to come. All through Africa and the Middle East jobs are hard to come by. The Far East is currently the workhouse of the world. Vast factories can produce products to satisfy demand for the whole of the planet. That was Britain’s role a mere hundred years ago.

About a dozen years ago Naomi Klein wrote “No Logo” which told the story of companies like Nike who decided that they no longer needed to make the goods they sold, but to sub contract the manufacture to factories in the Far East.
By doing so, they could free themselves of the bother of owning factories, sourcing raw materials, employing staff, providing healthcare and pensions. They would design the goods, order them from a factory, collect the finished goods from the factory gate and concentrate on the marketing and selling the goods. Once other companies saw how successful this strategy was, they followed suit and the death knell of manufacturing in the US and UK was sounded. Governments in the Far East fell over themselves in the rush to accommodate these trans-national companies. If a particular country’s employment laws were too stringent, they created employment zones where the laws didn’t apply. It was blackmail on an international scale.
If you want our factory in your country you’d better give us a good deal.
Some countries found to their cost that the multinational/trans-nationals had no loyalty and would up sticks if they could find a better deal elsewhere.
Even the UK was drawn into paying Japanese car manufacturers to set up factories here in the UK. Twenty years on and we’re discovering that multinational companies don’t pay tax- anywhere. And while a few workers might have jobs and there might be foreign cars with “Made in Britain” emblazoned on them, just as in the Far East, the host country does not get a good deal.
Northamptonshire is famous for shoes. When the railways opened up the land and made transporting goods cheap and easy, the shoe trade boomed. Boot and shoe factories in Kettering shod the Armed Forces. Shoes became cheaper. It was possible for a working man to own more than one pair. Even children could be shod.
Shoe factories sprung up in very town and every village. At the bottom of every terraced house in every town there was a brick built shed where shoe components were made by home workers. Every village had a shoe factory.
One particular firm struck lucky when they bought the rights to a sole invented by a Doctor Martens. For forty years Doc Martens were bought and worn by punks and skinheads, boys and girls alike. They were sold across the world and were an indispensable item in every wardrobe. Uppers were part stitched in Brazil and shipped to the UK to be made into footwear in the little village factories.
Having seen the success of Nike and the other fashion leaders, Griggs, the owners of Dr Martens decided to follow suit. The local factories that had seen generations of loyal and skilled shoe workers were closed. The machinery was sold off and the factories torn down. Griggs no longer made shoes. They bought them from a factory in China. They continued to make profits but the local economy saw no benefit.
Back in the early eighties a friend’s firm rented out some factory space to store machinery. All the metal working machines, lathes, etc from factories that had closed were stored ready for export to Asia.
When the machines left, so did the ability to retool and restart the manufacturing in the UK. Every clothing factory, every metal machining, shoe making or clothes making process needs machines and skilled people. The machines were sold, the people dismissed. Some people retrained, others never worked again.
The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, producers of goods destined to the four corners of the world, was closed, sold off and levelled.
And not just in the UK. The USA has also seen all its manufacturing capability transferred to Asia. It’s doubtful whether the USA or the UK for all our economic might could ever start manufacturing in the same way again.
Is that good or bad?

Both the UK and the USA have a strong Protestant work ethic. Our forefathers believed the Bible where it says “If a man will not work he shall not eat”. We humans are not made for a life of economic inactivity.

And all the while the shedding of labour continues. One man looking at a bank of computer screens can load a train of coal wagons in minutes. Huge warehouses surround this town, but each one only employs a handful of people. Computerised systems have eliminated the need for loaders and packers. In the USA they are trialling cars that don’t need a human to drive them. Will the future bring unmanned buses, controlled remotely by a person looking at a screen fifty miles away?

Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi classic “Dune” was published in Analog magazine in 8 parts, from 1963. Part of the plot structure involves an event referred to as “The Butlerian Jihad” when all thinking machines, computers, etc were outlawed. When Herbert was writing his book, could he have anticipated how much computers and modern technology have changed the world of work? A world where work is becoming increasingly rare?

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