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India’s Unskilled Workers Have Nowhere To Go When The Robots Take Over

The case of the Royal Enfield motorbike production line shows how automation may be most devastating for uneducated laborers in emerging economies.

India’s Unskilled Workers Have Nowhere To Go When The Robots Take Over
[Illustrations: Petr Strnad via Shutterstock]

Robots are threatening manual workers. This sounds like old news, but as robots take over all but the smallest parts of Royal Enfield motorbike production in India, Indian laborers face worse consequences than usual. Thanks the low quality of education, these displaced workers aren’t equipped to take on more complex jobs like they may be in other countries.

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This automation is good for companies like Royal Enfield, originally an English gun and bike manufacturer but now the Indian maker of the iconic Bullet motorbike. According to Bloomberg, one robot painter can do the work of 15 human workers over three shifts, and it can do it better, wasting less paint and never missing a spot. Robots are also faster to retrain than humans. You just switch out their programming.

The robots themselves need looking after, and so as the unskilled workers on the production lines are laid off, computer engineers are hired. The problem is that the manual workers have nowhere to go. It’s hard to employ somebody in even the most basic office work if they can’t read or write.

The automation of India’s manufacturing industry is also making politics difficult. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make In India scheme is designed to create jobs for the poor, but those unskilled jobs are disappearing.

Education is the key, but this is a long-term plan that, even if implemented perfectly, does nothing to help the workers being laid off today. According to the UN, the average Indian adult has only spent 4.4 years in school, putting it way behind other countries that are also automating their factories. Also, even university graduates have such a poor level of language and cognitive skills, says Bloomberg, that they have to be completely retrained for engineering jobs.

Worse, even migrant workers are less in demand as developing countries automate more and more jobs traditionally done by migrants.

Time is running out. At a government conference in December, the IMF’s Tharman Shanmugaratnam estimated that India has just 10 years left before robots take over all labor-intensive manufacturing.

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It seems unlikely, but could developing countries be the first to implement a universal basic income? In the U.S., policymakers are unlikely to make the huge changes needed to pay every citizen a basic and sufficient living wage, whether they work or not. But with a situation as desperate as that faced by India, perhaps there will be little choice.

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About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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