Opinion

While China robotizes its workforce, Latin America is falling behind

I was in Ecuador a few days ago when China’s official Xinhua news agency announced that it will launch the world’s first female robotic news anchor this month. It was only the latest example of how rapidly China is robotizing its workforce, while Latin America is not.

The new human-looking female robotic anchor, named Xin Xiaomeng, is making her on-air debut only four months after Xinhua launched its first male robotic TV anchor, named Qiu Hao. Since then, the robotic TV presenter has read thousands of news stories for a cumulative air time of more than 10,000 minutes, the news agency said.

In China, there is virtually no major industry that is not replacing large numbers of human workers with robots.

Because Chinese salaries have risen in recent years, and robots are increasingly cheaper and smarter, Chinese companies are adopting robots like never before in order to stay competitive in world markets.

The cost of an industrial robot in China plunged from the equivalent of 5.3 years of a human worker’s salary in 2010 to the equivalent of 1.5 years in 2016, according to the Bain & Company consulting firm. And robots can work three shifts in a row, don’t take vacations and don’t ask for raises.

The Chinese government is actively encouraging Chinese companies to buy more of them. Its calculation is that the alternative – protecting millions of human jobs at any cost, as is done in many Latin American countries – will be increasingly inefficient. It would make China’s exports too expensive, hurt the economy and, in the long run, increase poverty.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, China is buying more industrial and service robots than any other country. “The government intends to forge ahead and make it into the world’s 10 most intensely automated nations by 2020,” the IFR says.

This year, China expects to buy 210,000 industrial robots, more than the United States and the 28-country European Union combined.

When you compare the pace of China’s robot purchases with Latin America’s, the gap is even more staggering. Mexico is expected to buy only 6,000 industrial robots this year, Brazil 900, and the rest of South America 500 combined, the IFR says.

Measured in robot density – the number of robots relative to its working population – China has about 97 robots per 10,000 workers, Mexico has 36, and Brazil and Argentina have fewer than 20 each, the IFR says.

“We have not calculated the robot density for other South American countries because the number of units sold is still very low,” IFR General Secretary Gudrun Litzenberger told me in an email.

How will Latin America – especially manufacturing countries such as Mexico – compete with China, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and other Asian countries that are rapidly automating their workforces?

In most Latin American countries, powerful labor unions successfully coerce governments to protect jobs, even if those jobs are obsolete and become a burden for society.

In countries such as Ecuador, which is trying to emerge from a decade of disastrous populist policies, there is a bloated bureaucracy with state employees who often still fill out forms by hand. You don’t see automated cashiers at parking lots, or automated toll booths on the roads, or robotic fruit pickers.

But Latin America will not be immune to the growing automation of work. Just as postal workers could not stop the use of email, or taxi drivers in most places can’t stop Uber, efficiency most often prevails.

In Asia, most governments say that, instead of protecting inefficient jobs, they are focusing on improving education standards and retraining workers whose occupations will be taken over by robots. The goal shouldn’t be to protect jobs, but to protect people, they say.

It’s time for Latin American countries to start thinking much more seriously about how to improve education standards and train workers for the jobs of the future. Otherwise, countries in the region will be much less competitive than they are today, and their social problems will only get worse.

Andrés Oppenheimer is a Latin América correspondent for the Miami Herald. Send e-mail to: aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.

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