Friends & Friction: This crisis will send 4IR into overdrive

2020-03-26 13:00

Times are tough for everyone, but those who are quick-witted and have an unwavering will to win will survive. It has been said many times before and it is still true today – it’s business unusual.

People used to joke that when China sneezed, the whole world caught the flu. It is no longer a joke. China caught the Covid-19 coronavirus and the whole world went into a panic.

Many businesses have forced their staff to work from home to reduce the risk of infection, restaurants are empty and a new term has forced its way into our daily vocabulary: social distancing.

Covid-19 brings new questions to the way we do things. Do companies really need the hordes of staff members who are housed in large offices that cost a lot in terms of rent, electricity, water and other running expenses? Why don’t staff continue to work from home and use teleconferencing for meetings?

Why should companies pay for your coffee, sugar, milk and, yes, toilet paper, as well as incur latent costs related to furniture and office space?

The whole labour regime will change. If you can work from home every day, how can you claim to be an employee of a particular company? How can your “employer” know that you do not have multiple jobs for which you are handsomely paid? Why must your employer contribute to your medical aid or retirement fund?

And since all they need from you is your skills, why must they supply you with tools such as cellphones, laptops and data? You wouldn’t be expected to supply your plumber with tools when you need his or her service.

Universities and other tertiary institutions have shut down, and pupils and students are participating in a mass online learning experiment. Will institutions still need all of their regular support staff?

The Covid-19 panic is a dress rehearsal for life in the age of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). The gig economy has begun in earnest.

The economic recession that will most likely be a reality during this global crisis will give many companies the emergency exit they needed to retrench staff and, when the good times return, those humans will most likely be replaced with technology. Some will proclaim that the system has failed, and many will cite the millions of job losses as proof of this.

The counter-argument lies in a powerful novel called All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. The main character, Jack Burden, says to himself: “There is a kind of snobbery of failure. It’s a club, it’s the old school.”

We must let go of our membership to that club. We don’t belong there any more, Covid-19 or not. As a nation, we can no longer wallow in the snobbery of failure like customers who hoard tons of meat in an era of load shedding.

Unions have to rethink their reason for existence because, as one general manager of a major employer said to me, “union leaders are easy to deal with. You can talk to the bosses, but it is social media that we are most worried about. When staff members take their grievances to Twitter, the company always loses.”

Labour unions matter for now because they have government’s ear, but government needs to understand that it is betting on an ageing horse.

When Covid-19 passes, the entire regime for economic growth and development in South Africa should be refocused to enable small businesses to thrive, and bureaucracy and the labour laws will have to be revised urgently.

Nobody will have permanent employment any more. The perks of the stable industrial era are over. The business environment has become too unpredictable to make long-term financial commitments.

Covid-19 may not be one of the worst killers in the world, but it has certainly made the world re-evaluate its ways. Wash your hands consistently so you do not get sick from that deal that you seal with a handshake.

Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency

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March 29 2020