Last summer, the BBC aired a reality TV show Britain’s Hardest Workers: Inside the low-wage economy, which pitted 20 real-life jobseekers against one another performing menial, low-wage and demeaning jobs, each assessed and eliminated depending on their efficiency. Workers were given various tasks including picking vegetables, cleaning hotel rooms or sorting supermarket food deliveries in warehouses. Such examples bring an alarming reality to the era of zero-hours contracts and precarious work which provide a potent political rationale for widespread automation to liberate society from the grind of work.
Brexit was a decision taken on the basis of dramatically differing, often contradictory reasoning but one taken predominantly by an ageing, low-skilled slice of the population in the name of either controlling immigration or the perception of a reclaimed sovereignty. Now that the hourglass has been flipped, we await with trepidation as the impending negotiations unfold. However one recurring theme was played out over and over as the Brexit postmortems continued to be carried out all over the English periphery, that of identity derived from work.Anger loosely directed towards the technocrats of the European Union for these failings to replace stable, skilled and locally recognised jobs with the drudgery of modern low-wage work is placed as blame for not limiting the brutality of the global market on domestic labour conditions. Up until this point, it has almost always proved cheaper, or more politically palatable to pay a human to carry out a basic task than invest in an automated equivalent. The idea that departing EU workers will leave jobs open for the native English to happily grab is one of the most serious on the long list of fundamental misconceptions at present. Both skilled and unskilled labour will not be able be speedily replaced by Britons since long abandoning the skilling up in manual tasks in favour of service economy jobs supplemented by reformed university courses.
For an industry such as construction, this has potentially catastrophic effects. As a recent GLA report stated, of the 348,000 construction workers currently in London, 27% are from EU countries. Early indicators are that migration from the EU to the UK is slowing post-Brexit and the present skills shortage has been well documented. Just as a rebalancing of the UK economy away from the City may be a very slim thread of positivity from this process, an obvious solution to this may be the opportunity to launch into a national skills programme for construction and manufacturing. However, as Sky’s Ed Conway recently pointed out, the government, or more specifically Philip Hammond, has for some time been mesmerised by the hypnotic lures of boosting economic productivity.
The most obvious route into this is automation. Laing O’Rourke recently built their own pre-fabrication facility with the help of handouts dating back to the coalition government’s Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative (AMSCI). Such an operation is capable of churning out building components to create 10,000 homes per year. The take up of this process will, as ever, depend on subsidies and incentivisation through capital tax allowances which encourage R&D.
Building at speed for politically charged housebuilding targets may well fuse with a boom in investments in robot manufacturing. The widely influential Farmer report, stingingly titled Modernise or Die, supports calls for technological advancements to the construction industry. By moving construction away from its highly fluctuating manual labour market, Farmer argues that assembly line production with quicker outputs will stabilise the boom and bust nature of the industry.
Just as fruit picking will not be sufficiently replaced by human labour, UK-born construction workers are scarce and 20% of the existing workforce are heading into retirement within 5-10 years. Automation will continue to forge its way into political discourse as a way of relinquishing menial jobs from society. For construction however, technological improvements will come as a necessity to meet the swollen level of demand.