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Throughout European economies and societies the issue of labour supply has become a major and contested issue. The apparent lack of workers in various sectors of the economy such as farming, manufacturing, hospitality, and haulage among others has forced policymakers to re-think existing immigration policies and integration programmes concerning refugees and asylum seekers. In other words, they are advocating for immigration policies that would eventually allow non-EU immigrants and refugees to take jobs national citizens are unwilling to take. What are the consequences of such policies? The election results in Italy, France, Germany and more recently in the Netherlands indicate that anti-immigration sentiments and concerns have priority over labour shortages. Far right parties have found themselves in governing and official opposition positions by arguing that high rates of immigration depress wages, reduce investment in skills and technological equipment and put unsustainable pressure on public services and housing. While the emergent European right and far right parties put forward their plans to reduce immigration, they seem unable to reduce labour shortages.
At the same time, parties across the ideological spectrum strongly believe in an ever-growing economy and are committed to tackling chronic low productivity. The divergence in understandings of social cohesion and agreement in economic outcomes situates technology and more specifically the automation of labour at the forefront of possible policy solutions that can decrease the dependency of economies on cheap migrant labour, automate all undesirable jobs and minimise demands for higher wages and improved working conditions. However, such a solution is neither innovative nor does it constitute a panacea for all the current social and economic pathologies.
As early as in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that a fully automated economy will generate the peculiar problem of “technological unemployment”, but such a problem would gradually decrease and living standards in advanced industrial nations would be four to eight times higher. Yet, not only do low-paid immigrants continue to fill in gaps in the labour market but the aspiration for a fully automated economy has become a governing and disciplinary mechanism.
The case for uninterrupted technological progress at the service of the economy rests on the efficient management of the period of adjustment. Policymakers, unions, and think tanks fail to recognise that such a period is a permanent state of affairs that serves the purpose of governing the working population by curtailing their demands and expectations. Fears of technological unemployment and of an unproductive workforce do only reconfigure the relationship between the state and the economy but also legitimise a specific kind of government dealing with retraining, reskilling and ultimately with economic growth and productivity.
Dr. Kostas Maronitis is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations. His research interests focus on the political theory and policies of immigration, labour and European integration. Kostas Maronitis has published articles on immigrant detention and human rights, networks of protest, cosmopolitanism and citizenship, the politics of fear and victimhood, sovereignty and Brexit, automation and immigration.
Technology, Employment and Wellbeing is a new FES blog that offers original insights on the ways new technologies impact the world of work. The blog focuses on bringing different views from tech practitioners, academic researchers, trade union representatives and policy makers.