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Brave new world of retail bad for workers

| Economic factors

South African grocery retailers are taking their cue from global players, and as a result the retail workforce may be under threat as technology continues to rattle the sector.

About three years ago the biggest retailer in the world, US-based Walmart, embraced smaller-format stores as its superstores began falling out of favour with customers, and signalled it would employ a more rationalised workforce.

This year, the group announced a further reduction in staff as it focused more on e-commerce business. About 18000 people lost their jobs out of a workforce of 2.3 million employees globally.

Similarly, UK-based retailer Tesco cut 1200 staff jobs in its head office after cutting 1 100 jobs in its call centre.

Walmart competitor Amazon has only 34400 staff, although it said in January it expected to add 100 000 people to its workforce in the next 18 months.

Andre Roux, head of the future studies programme at Stellenbosch University, said technology had been a significant disruptor in recent times, but several other issues were influencing the way companies were seeing the labour force.

"Robots can work for up to 40 days in a row for 24 hours a day".

Robots would gradually replace human labour, he said.

"No one owes anybody a job. There's no entitlement. You are only going to be employed if you can make an efficient contribution," said Roux.

The fastest-growing employment was self-employment, as opposed to working for one organisation for many years.

Graphic: RUBY-GAY MARTIN
Graphic: RUBY-GAY MARTIN

"The whole idea of cradle to grave or womb to tomb is becoming more and more outdated," Roux said.

"In the future, people will probably work for 20 or more organisations during their careers - just a couple of years at a time.

"That has implications for how one builds up one's pension fund. It becomes one's own responsibility."

But in a country such as South Africa, which was part of a developing region, there was a disjuncture between adopting first-world ways of doing business on the one hand, and dealing with issues such as an unskilled labour force on the other.

"Although we are a developing country, these days you've got to be as good as the best.

"We have to follow new trends but at the same time be aware of our own unique challenges.

"As it is we have a surplus of unskilled labour and a shortage of appropriately skilled labour."

According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, South Africa's unemployment rate was 27.7% in the first quarter of 2017, the highest unemployment rate since September 2003.

In the current retail climate, Pick n Pay's self-service checkout points may be the biggest threat of all to labour.

Bones Skulu, general secretary of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (Saccawu), said the union was challenging the installation of self-service checkouts.

It would continue calling on workers to embark on industrial action in response to technology that had the potential to replace labour.

He added that Saccawu was expecting further job cuts by Pick n Pay across various divisions.

For those on the shop floor, the changes are telling. Perceptions among staff are that more work has to be done by fewer people.

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