New Internationalist

Wiring Africa

Issue 286

Automatic unemployment
Computers are saving labour – by doing away with jobs. Julie White reports on the impact
of technological change on employment in the Canadian pulp and paper industry.

Gary lives in small-town southern Ontario, in a fertile region of peach trees and grape vines just a 30-minute drive from Niagara Falls. For 22 years he’s worked at the same local newsprint mill.

Like many paper workers he started work at the mill before graduating from high school. There had always been lots of work in the mill and on-the-job training and years of service were more important than formal education. So why delay?

After 22 years you might think Gary would be in a secure, top-level position. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Over the last 20 years new technology has dramatically altered work in the paper industry. The very Canadian sight of logs rushing downstream in the spring to pulp and paper mills has disappeared because newsprint is no longer produced from logs. Instead wood chips are trucked in to be pulped at high pressure and old newspapers are fed through a de-inking process. The system is different, the equipment to do it is different and the operations are computerized. Workers who once did strenuous manual labour picking wood for the grinders now sit at computer terminals. And there are far fewer of them. At Gary’s mill the workforce has declined from 750 in 1980 to only 240 today. Yet, with a third the number of workers the mill churns out double the newsprint.

The first blow came in 1981 when the new equipment was introduced at the mill. ‘There were about 350 people on the lay-off list,’ Gary remembers. ‘And I was 52 down from the top. I wasn’t supposed to have a job. Period. I was married and had a son. I was so worried I sold my house and moved in with my in-laws.’

Faced with major lay-offs, the union negotiated an early retirement plan for older workers and a shorter work week for everyone – both designed to save jobs. Ultimately 100 workers were axed. But with nine years of service Gary had just enough seniority to hang on.

Traditional wisdom has it that once a factory has been ‘modernized’ and the new machinery is in place the jobs of the remaining workers will at least be secure. Security for the company translates into secure jobs for the workers. Not this time. In Gary’s mill, as in other mills across the country, new technology continued to be introduced and more jobs slashed.

In the years since 1981 Gary has worked either in the general labour pool (where he started in 1974) or in the newly-created ‘departmental pools,’ still filling in for workers but in specific departments. In 1993 he got a regular job in the woodroom. ‘Somebody retired finally and I got a steady job.’ It lasted just six months before another round of cutbacks. He’s now working as a ‘spare’ again moving to different shifts as necessary. The hours are irregular and the jobs unpredictable. ‘Tonight and tomorrow night I’m on the wrap line at midnight. The next day I have to go to the labour pool for an afternoon shift, then Thursday, Friday and Saturday I’m on days in the woodroom.’

Gary is one of thousands of pulp and paper workers across Canada whose lives have been turned upside down by computerization over the last two decades. From 1975 to 1995 more than 20,000 jobs disappeared in the industry as the total workforce fell by a quarter from 84,000 to 63,000.

But there is another side to the story. Business people say technological change will mean fewer but better jobs. So what about the high-skilled, high-paid, interesting computer jobs that at least replaced the boring, physical labour of picking wood eight hours a day?

Jim also works in the Donahue paper mill, the same one as Gary. He is the number one operator in the flotation de-inking department where old newspapers and magazines are recycled into pulp – 80 per cent of the content of the newsprint produced at the mill now comes from this source of pulp. Jim sits in front of four computer screens, controlling de-inking equipment that cost $42 million to install. If anyone at the mill is secure, he is. He’s well paid, earning $24 an hour or about $50,000 a year.

Jim’s been at the mill for 24 years and started work in the flotation de-inking process when it opened in 1987. Although he found training for the job ‘exciting’ and a ‘challenge’ he has been in the job now for almost ten years and it has become routine. The computers have alarms that alert the operators to problems so it is often unnecessary even to watch the screens.

‘The novelty has worn off,’ Jim admits. ‘At first you had to figure everything out, but once you’ve figured it out the computer does 99 per cent of the work. Now it’s just tedious and boring. You’re just responding where it can’t handle it, a few breakdowns. Some nights there is just nothing to do.’

Jim can’t move to another job: with so few operator positions there is nowhere to go. Besides, the operator jobs in different departments are all pretty much the same. ‘I’d like to think that I could move but I guess I’m stuck.’ Jim is 44 years old and will be in this same job until he retires, at least another 14 years. Many jobs are boring, but it is important to know that the hi-tech, computerized jobs are often no exception.

One reason for being bored is that there are only two operators on shift together, usually one in the control room with the computers and one out checking in the plant. During the day other workers and supervisors are around, but on night-shift many hours can be spent entirely alone. Opportunities for socializing are minimal. And with only two co-workers there can be unpleasant tensions. ‘You’re only two. If you don’t get along for eight hours it’s going to be a long day and a long week and a long year.’

In paper mills across the country there are fewer workers and smaller crews. Walking through a mill today, you’re impressed with the enormous buildings, the huge machinery and – most strikingly – the absence of people.

‘Now the departments are smaller you don’t have the numbers,’ another worker from Jim’s mill explained. ‘There used to be coffee clubs or get-togethers once a month. We all used to go out on a particular shift and on shut-down days we’d have parties. Now there’s not enough people and you haven’t got the closeness.’

With fewer workers in the plant there are also more chances for accidents. Jim remembers when his partner was out touring the department, slipped at the presses and caught his hand in the machinery. With his hand mangled and a finger missing, he managed to get to the control room of another department which was nearer than his own. ‘He scared the hell out of me that night,’ Jim recalls, ‘because he could have died up there and I wouldn’t have known’.

Over the last 20 years computerization of the pulp and paper industry has sparked a 50-per-cent boom in production with 25-per-cent fewer workers. Our ability to produce more goods with less labour should spell progress and social benefits. It hasn’t. Even the workers who still have jobs feel few benefits have flowed their way. As a society we need to do something about it – soon.

Julie White works for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada where she is currently researching options for a reduced work week.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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