Bank workers can’t strike on Friday, but their revolt against the robots has just begun



In 2018, Nedbank CEO Mike Brown proudly presented his newest employee - Pepper.  A robot, she was part of staff at the bank's pop-up showpiece new generation branch at the Gautrain station in Johannesburg.

One of two humanoid robots, Pepper needs human chaperones, but is a symbol of how automation has come to the South African banking industry.  In addition, Nedbank uses 59 software robots to automate various work processes - a move that will replace the work of humans in the medium term. 

Across the big banks, the past two years have been a time of nerve-wracking job cut announcements as Nedbank, Standard Bank and Absa collectively announced thousands of retrenchments.  Standard Bank announced the closure of 104 branches too, the highest number yet. (Capitec is bucking the trend: it announced on Thursday it is opening branches, and employing instead of retrenching.) 

The widescale retrenchments have sent ripples of fear through the sector as "digital disruption" reaches one of the fastest-growing sectors. 

The other word for it is the fourth industrial revolution or the era of automation of processes previously performed by humans and of robotics, where robots are programmed to do the work of humans, except at far faster rates.

As former FNB CEO Michael Jordaan, tweeted this week “An app can’t go on strike.”

Can 100-year-old Sasbo stop a revolution?

Sasbo wants to slow down the revolution and be a co-architect of how it unfolds.  The 100-year-old union is wealthy, strategic and angry. 

A crafty union which organises the middle-class, it opened shop when Standard Bank, which it has called the “inexorable enemy”, fired Leonard Trevor when he tried to start a union in 1916 to represent the white bank workers of the time. 

After three years of campaigning, Sasbo, which then had 400 members, was recognised in 1919. The following year, it filed its first strike ballot by post and then went on strike with 3,000 members, all white men. In October 1945, the union demonstrated again on the right to a pension; it went on strike again in 1956 and in 1997, it marched against bank robberies. 

While the union’s Section 77 socio-economic strike was stopped by the court on Thursday, it lost on a technicality and its leaders are likely to complete new paperwork notifying of a strike on the same day.

Sasbo is joined in its campaign against a robotic revolution by the larger membership of Cosatu.

Sasbo stepped under the Cosatu umbrella in 1994, but the affiliation has always been unusual: Cosatu is socialist in ideological orientation, while Sasbo believes in “capitalism with a conscience”. Sasbo's promotional video says the union believes in “profits but not in profiteering” and it states that it is not “anti-management”. 

This is because many Sasbo members are in fact managers, making the campaign against bank job losses the first big labour action by the middle-class and against the fourth industrial revolution’s impact in South Africa.

The actual numbers of people retrenched have been much lower than the headlines suggested because the banks are reducing through attrition, transfers, retraining and early retirement. 

But the campaign against retrenchments are shot across the bow and it is likely to be the first of many as all the banks are automating quickly as consumers increasingly move out of analogue transacting in banks with human beings to app-based banking.  The revolution will accelerate once data costs come down with greater competition, regulatory pressure from Icasa and also once spectrum is auctioned in 2020. 

A middle-class strike against automation

The minimum salary for its members negotiated by Sasbo’s experienced team is just over R13,000, according the union’s newsletters, putting most bank employees in the ranks of the middle class.  This year, its members won basic salary increases of between 7% and 7.3% measured against inflation of 4%, meaning that bank workers won among the highest hikes in the country where wage freezes are common.  

Increases were given by performance so it is likely that many achieved better percentages.  

Sasbo’s newsletters give an insight into the lives of its members – they advertise timeshare at nature reserves at rates negotiated by their union. The classified ads are for holiday housing or caravans, the symbols of middle-class life. The union’s strength is clear from its benefits like a benevolent fund, a legal helpline, group insurance schemes and bursaries for the children of members. 

These are hard-won rights and it explains the planned Sasbo action against Pepper and the inexorable momentum that the early wave of retrenchments signal - workers feel threatened.

pepper mike brown

Nedbank CEO Mike Brown with Pepper. Photo: Elvira Wood.

Many of the lines in the job descriptions of these workers are quickly being taken over by machines. Data processing, to cash dispensing, to balance sheet creation and now even customer service are at risk of being replaced by machines.   

The union’s various contributions show that it is not Luddite – the movement that tried to stop the first industrial revolution. Sasbo recognises that the era of automation and robotics is going to happen and can’t be stopped.  But it does want a say in how that process unfolds. 

It quotes UNI, the global union whose general-secretary Christy Hoffman has said: “The application of AI (artificial intelligence) should not be self-regulated and left to the big tech companies – (that is Google, Amazon, Facebook and others).” 

In South Africa, Sasbo’s strike is also about how that process should not be left to bank bosses alone but should include workers too.  The union represents labour on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the forum it believes includes inclusion and negotiation on how a machine will replace (wo)man.   In one of its newsletters, Sasbo writes “Robots and computers threaten 14% of existing jobs over the next 20 years,” quoting an OECD report. 

Sasbo general-secretary Joe Kokela has called for banks to “implement the fourth industrial revolution with patriotism and humanity”. 

He also wrote that “…the banks need to come up with employer-friendly alternatives when they go through these exercises. They need to provide skill development. They need to unearth the passion for affected employees for careers outside the banking sector.”   

*Correction: This article has been changed to clarify that there are different types of robots deployed at Nedbank.  

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