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What This Terrifying, Crab-Butchering Robot Can Teach Us About Automation

Robots aren't always the solution to a labour crisis.

by Jordan Pearson
Jul 7 2017, 2:01pm

A prototype of the robot. Screengrab: CCFI.

Newfoundland and Labrador is Canada's charming East Coast fishing province, and it's in big trouble. The province, which is decorated with iconic rows of brightly painted houses, had an unemployment rate of 14.4 percent as of May this year, more than double the national average.

Now, a new and frankly terrifying robot that can butcher a crab in seconds is being touted as a way to reinvigorate the province's beleaguered seasonal fishing industry. However, labour advocates don't see it that way.

Since a moratorium on cod fishing was put in place in 1992—obliterating tens of thousands of jobs in the process—shellfish like shrimp and crab have become increasingly important to industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, crabs are sent overseas for meat extraction (delicate work that used to be done in the province) where labour is cheaper than in Canada. A robot that can do the work here for less than the cost of a living wage would bring that aspect of the job home and benefit plant owners who will reap the financial rewards.

But when it comes to actually helping workers, why go with a robot that may create a few highly-skilled maintenance positions instead of creating a bunch of jobs for humans to process all that crab themselves?

Read More: The Future of Robot Labor Is the Future of Capitalism

"Younger people are not being attracted to the industry," said Bob Verge, managing director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation, which invented the robot, in an interview with the CBC. "A large part of the labour force in our processing sector now comes from the baby boomer generation. We can't replace those baby boomers with an equal number of younger people."

Enter the robot, which can do the work of this supposedly non-existent workforce in a province where 14 percent of working-age people don't have a job, and at a fraction of the cost of paying humans.

"We really don't have is a shortage of workers, what we have is a shortage of people who will go to work at a precarious job," Greg Pretty, industrial director at the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, told me on a phone call. "[Factory owners] don't want to pay middle-class wages for the most part, and they want to employ people for 20 hours a week. And then the same crowd says, 'We can't get workers.'"

The Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation wasn't able to comment in time for publication.

Pretty is saying that there are people who want to work, but the jobs have to pay. To heal the province's hurting fishing industry, workers don't need robots, they need legislation that protects them, he said. Current policies allow tons of fish, including crab, to be shipped overseas for cheap processing. As for the wider provincial context, Newfoundland's 2016 budget contained a brutal raft of austerity measures, and the new government has committed to not increase government spending for five years in order to bring down the province's deficit by 2022.

With Pretty's comments in mind, it's worth taking a critical eye to claims that a new robot will invigorate an ailing industry and ask: who will it benefit, really?

"As long as there's been fish plants here, there's been tech change, and we have always dealt with it," said Pretty.

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