It took me a while to figure out a title for this article. The past year has put into the spotlights the way our society is relying on cheap labor, often foreign workers, sometimes illegally working in the country . Covid crisis, migrating crisis and also Brexit have shown the great need of this labor to assure the continuity of supply chain, from the farm to our fridge, from the restaurant to our table. We rely on all these individuals, which are invisible to us or that we just prefer to ignore. If tomorrow, cheap labor was striking worldwide, probably all existing services would be affected.
From call centers to bike riders, from strawberry and grape pickers to kitchen staffers, from industrial butchers to janitors…
There has been a bunch of recent articles in the newspapers, pointing out that millions of American workers are quitting their low paid jobs, that British post-Brexit immigration ‘s policy has conducted in the shortage of poultry workers, that illegal workers are demonstrating in France for the right to have contracts.
Truth is, wages aren’t keeping up with surging prices and low-wage jobs often lack opportunities for career growth. With the ongoing inflation, post Covid, prices are going up and low paid workers are suffering from the increased bills. Workers are discouraged, more keen to change jobs or put pressure on their employers. This would be the US situation, probably a little different than the one we have in Europe. But US labor shortage might be also influenced by the Trump era efforts to reduce the number of immigrants crossing the border. We can probably isolate US workers into two categories, on one side workers constituting the low wage, entry-level jobs workers and on the other side the immigrants workers.
Some workers have totally switched professions, waiters for example who were not able to work during the crisis, and who in most cases where left with no rights because they were on short contracts, had no choices but to change industry to survive. Most of them discovered more stable jobs, with stable pay, no wonder why they won’t come back today to their previous jobs. This situation can apply to UK, US, and France. In those three countries, situation has been almost the same, despite the financial help to restaurants or bar in France, those workers were very often not qualifying for the same help.
I must admit, I am a bit amused to read the UK newspapers, every day there are new shortages, where they somehow discover that their – so much hatred EU-workers – were in fact a necessity to assuring the running of their local industry. From Polish workers coming to work before Christmas in their meat industry, to Spanish nurses working at the NHS and French waiters working in their London restaurants. They are still entangled in their gas shortage, only because they don’t have enough truck drivers to drive the tanker lorries from the oil plant to the gas station… British were accused in 2020 of modern slavery, it emerged garment workers at factories in Leicester, UK were being paid just £3.50 an hour. It was the tip of the iceberg, later authorities found out that there was a widespread exploitation of illegal workers in the city of Leicester. A study revealed that across Britain there are at least 100,000 slaves.
“But this type of exploitation – people being paid well under the minimum wage, having to work in unacceptable conditions – that sort of abuse has to be stamped out, it has to be examined, we have to follow the evidence and prosecute wherever possible.”UK Justice Secretary Robert Buckland
Poor regulation and poor legislation helped this situation for years, somehow the British managed to replicate the working conditions that exists in Bangladesh directly inside the kingdom.
France has been for years using cheap illegal workers. It is estimated in 2021, that 400 000 illegal workers are currently working and living in France. Personally I don’t know any of them but I can only imagine I, in fact, see them every other day. I would say that 99% of the time, when you order food on Uber or Deliveroo, riders will be illegal workers. Often renting the right to work … to a legal worker owning the account. Platforms will pretend they do it all legally, that they verified their worker’s permits, but in the end the riders are not the one that signed for the job. I remember when Deliveroo started to operate in Paris, most riders were French students or young workers, at least you could tell that the guy on the picture was the one delivering food to you on their bike. Nowadays, this guy -who use to deliver food on his bike – became the boss of a little business, renting his access to the platform to one or more illegal workers. The most resourceful ones will somehow have enough to money to use motorbikes, the poorest one will end up using one of the city’s shared bike. Given the regulations in France, I am often not so sure if employers who are using illegal workers are doing it because they want cheap labor or only because they could not find any legal worker to do the job with the wage they can offer/ afford. You must take into account that the cost of labor in France is huge, for example let’s say you have an employee with a salary of €2500, between the taxes and everything the total cost for the company is at least €4000.
In the last few companies I have been working for, I have observed a big trend among labor and the way companies would reduce their costs.
The most visible trend on the job market today is the constant levelling-down of all kind of jobs within a company, in order to make them available to entry-level workers, hence low paid ones. Only general management would be the one taking on more responsibilities, being the winners of this new system. In a way, applying Fordism to the service industry.
The great Replacement
I think nowadays we are only at the early stage of what I would call the great Replacement. Simplifying jobs makes them more easy to being done by machines. We are only at early stages of an Artificial Intelligence able to take on all entry level task like answering to customers. I am currently learning myself Python and show a great interest into Livechat’s bots technology, able to understand, solve and answer to customer automatically. I have been following the evolution of Neon the N26 Bots operating on their in-app livechat, so far there has been only a few improvements, and we are far from having a great quality AI. Google has made great improvement on its own AI, progressing in machine learning and ability of the system to communicate like human on the phone.
I think nowadays we are only at the early stage of what I would call the great Replacement.
Once AI bots will reach the same level as human worker, you can bet they will replace all customer services, if companies are willing to pay the price for the expensive licences. But what is a fixed cost compared to an army of low-paid workers, humans that can not work H24, can be sick, have a life.
The only two reasons why machines have not yet replace workers in most cases are the fact this is an expensive technology and that AI is not yet perfect.
The best example I can thing about is why dishwashers are not selling well on the Chinese market. Most households have Ayi (maids), who are less costly overall than buying home appliances given again the poor regulation and poor salaries. But with the overall wages increasing in China, it will likely become a great market in the future.
What then ?
The question is, in a future where AI and machines can do all entry level tasks workers could do, what will those workers end up doing. I guess we will have to choices, either considering that human is not made to work his whole life, and we will end up spending more time enjoying art and culture. This vision is romantic and only a deep change of the capitalist system would allow it, where a rich life would not be measured by profits and money but by culture and knowledge, or research.
Or we will end up in a World like in the movies ” In Time “or “Elysium” where you have super rich and super poor but no in between.