As sewbots threaten Asia's sweatshops, we need to decide who will benefit from automation

A new International Labour Organization report called ASEAN in transformation: How technology is changing jobs and enterprises predicts that "sewbots" — sewing robots that can piece together garments with little or no human intervention — will replace up to 90% of garment and footwear workers in Cambodia and Vietnam in the years to come.

This isn't an entirely bad news story: the South Asian garment industry is dangerous and underpaid, and replacing humans with robots will reduce the labor inputs (and hence the price) of things that we all need — clothes and shoes.

But obviously, that will leave a hell of a lot of people in the region without any jobs. This presents two problems: first, how will they live; and second, who will buy the things that robots make if all the benefits of automation accrue to an ever-dwindling group of people who own robots?

French philosopher Bernard Stiegler has led an effort to create an experimental town called Plaine Commune in Seine-Saint-Denis that seeks to address this question through a "contributory income" that differs from the better-known minimum basic income. Under contributory income schemes, participants receive a minimum income that is topped up by doing creative and cognitive work that is interleaved with continuous, lifelong learning and retraining.

His rallying cry: "The time saved through automation must be granted to the people."

//Bernard Stiegler// Such an income, also called "basic" [income], is a safety net. A contributory income is at the intersection of the models of temporary work in the performing arts [intermittents du spectacle] and the practices of [creating] free software. It covers various levels of compensation that depend upon the periods of employment and the level of salary. The work of tomorrow will be discontinuous [intermittent]. Periods of employment will alternate with periods of acquiring, developing and sharing knowledge. The right to the contributory income will be "rechargeable", based upon the number of hours of employment. In case of problems, the system will be accompanied by a minimum living wage [revenu minimum d'existence] – as a social protection system attached. The trial we have led with Plaine Commune includes testing a contributory income to benefit those who are younger, for whom the amounts could increase with age and where the contribution allowance [allocation contributif] outside of the employed period would represent a percentage akin to the model of paying unemployment benefit to those working in the performing arts [les intermittents]. The beneficiaries would be invited to "invest in themselves" [«s'encapaciter»], that is to say, to increase their knowledge through studies as well as professional experience. They would be invited to share their knowledge [savoirs] with their neighbouring community [communauté territoriale]. All of this calls for a new collective intelligence, capable of mobilising formal and advanced theoretical knowledge, which is why, with doctoral students, the aim is to develop a contributory research involving the young and local residents. The aim is to develop an economy of contribution founded on the production of negentropy. [3]

ASEAN in transformation: How technology is changing jobs and enterprises

[Jae-Hee Chang, Gary Rynhart and Phu Huynh/International Labour Organization]

Robot factories could threaten jobs of millions of garment workers
[Tansy Hoskins/The Guardian]

[Sam Kinsley]

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