The Ignored Consequences of Technological Advances

by Lizette Acosta, Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a film remembered for its creative and colorful images and the perseverance and innocence of the poverty-stricken child. However, a detail that is often overlooked is the father’s unemployment being a direct result of technology. His occupation was to screw on the caps of toothpaste tubes. Although this might be seen as a physically demanding job, and one that should be replaced by robotics, having this job allowed him to provide for his large family. When he was fired, Charlie and his family were barely able to get buy with the mediocre savings they had.

Furthermore, it is hard to argue that technological advancements are harmful because they are typically seen as the foundation of an efficient society. Looking at history for answers, the industrial revolution exemplifies the way in which technology was able to increase productivity and substantially raise the standard of living. Thus, technology and its place in society is highly valued and its presence is often pushed to expand. However, the consequences of increased technology are not traditionally emphasized and often swept under the rug because it is believed that these advancements are for the greater good.

It is important to recognize that technological advancements create a displacement of human labor in our world today. The logic is that a machine can do the same task more quickly and efficiently, and in the long run proves less expensive than human labor. A growing example of this would be the presence of technology in agricultural business with efforts to replace the strenuous jobs of farm workers.

Robot Lettuce Harvester

In Salinas, California, lettuce farmers are starting to turn towards technology to harvest their produce. The machine harvests the lettuce with pressurized water and is able to cut five lettuce heads at once; it is able to do the labor of six workers. The machine is truly beneficial for the owner because he is able to harvest lettuce faster, at a lower cost and through that lower the price of his product and prove to be more competitive in the lettuce market. Conversely, the six laborers who are no longer employed are not benefitting from this form of technology like the owner. In fact, these types of advances only hurt laborers who are searching for low-skilled jobs.

Robotic Cow Milking

Another example of technology eroding prominent migrant labor would be the new robots that milk cows on dairy farms. Dale Heminger of Hemdale Farms and Greenhouses in Clifton Springs, New York has turned away from migrant labor and instead has adopted a more technological approach to milk his cows. This new machine reads the identity of the cow, then milks the cow based on certain setting; it also sends notifications to the technician if something is wrong with the system or with the cow. To this owner, this is the most efficient way to milk the cows because the machine is self-sustained and relies on only a minimum amount of human labor. To his defense, Heminger claims that the labor market for jobs such as milking cows was low, and that is what made this option so much more appealing. However, Pete Maslyn, the dairy manager stated, “Since we’ve been completely robotic, we’ve probably cut out about 35 percent of our labor costs”. This demonstrates that even those willing to take on such labor are being dismissed and replaced with a machine. Companies that are taking on technological based approaches to their business are not concerned with the lives that are being jeopardized, because they see labor as a cost in their financial data sheet, not individuals with lives and responsibilities.

Nevertheless, the media typically sees advances such as these in a bright light because laborers will no longer have to face the physical pains of manual labor, and the task will be done much more quickly with less cost. What fails to make the headlines of the same media outlet is that this type of machinery will leave hundreds of laborers unemployed, in particular the undocumented migrant.

Migrant worker

It is common knowledge that undocumented, much like documented, migrants are a significant part of the agricultural workforce. In reference to the previously stated example of the robotic cow milker, one of the farmers stated, “I have yet to have INS question the green card of a robot,” eluding to the fact that undocumented migrants are what typically fuel this labor. The increase of technology in the field of agriculture will lessen the probability of migrants finding a job in these areas. Because labor is the highest priority for most migrants, they will move in accordance to job availability. A recent NBER study found that the goal of many undocumented migrants is to save enough money and return home to their families, not to stay in the United States. As a result, they know their time is costly and must find a job as soon as possible.

The relocation of undocumented migrants might prove to be detrimental to the documented individual. Esther Yu-His Lee from Think Progress found that undocumented play a pivotal role on the United States economy. She explains that the tax contributions of undocumented migrants help sustain the Social Security Trust fund and contribute to the Medicare System Surplus, even though they do not typically reap the benefits of these services. Additionally she claims that the presence and labor of undocumented migrants has served to increase the American wage. “Looking to the most recent immigration wave between 1990 to 2006, immigrant participation increased the earnings of U.S. workers by about 0.6 percent. But looking ahead to future immigration, immigrant laborers are also expected to raise the earnings of U.S. workers by at least 0.4 percent”. She argues that undocumented migrant labor is used to fill the gaping holes of the labor market, not steal the jobs of native born people. Taking this into consideration is critical for society to reanalyze their thoughts on the presence of migrant labor, and what will happen when technology replaces migrant labor.

Migrant Laborers

Undocumented migrants are more than just people who work in the fields, and do the jobs that most people do not want to do. Their presence in the United States is more than just labor, it is culture, it is tradition, it is wealth, it is taxes, and an input to the economy overall. A cold metal machine cannot easily replace all these characteristics. Societies have always benefitted from technology because it increases productivity and efficiency, but the consequences that technology creates for low-skilled workers have typically been ignored. In order for society to move forward, technological advances must be matched with profit distribution.


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