Making Friends With The Robots – The Swiss Vote In June On A Universal Basic Income

On 5th June Switzerland will become the first country to vote on a universal basic income. It is a timely referendum. One of the main arguments for a UBI is that technological advances mean we face a future where there will not be paid employment for everyone. And that ‘future’ may be upon us.

On 25th of May sports clothing giant Adidas unveiled its new prototype Speedfactory in Ansbach, Southern Germany. It announced it will start selling its first sports shoes manufactured by robots in this factory in 2017. Adidas outsourced production from Germany to Asia over 20 years ago to make production cheaper and profits higher; but robots are apparently even cheaper than the exploited workers in the Asian factories, and they work faster.

The good news is that workers no longer have to tolerate appalling wages and poor working conditions in outsourced factories. The bad news is they will likely be left with no way to support themselves and their families. Meanwhile, Adidas shareholders and management will enjoy even greater financial benefits if they have robots rather than people working for them.

Technology itself is not the enemy. Robots can perform many tasks that humans are unable to perform, are dangerous or hazardous to human health, or at the very least are monotonous and soul destroying. Technology can make life better for both people and the planet. At issue is how many people get to share in the benefits of new technology.

Victor Billot states in ‘Maritimes’ Issue 51 Spring 15, “The danger is that the labour movement gets itself diverted into opposing new forms of technology, rather than fighting to change the social relations and the economic structures that are no longer relevant in the age of the Robot World.”

We need to move quickly to make robots everyone’s friends. In the Adidas model, only the shareholders, management, and a small group of workers will benefit. Many people will be left without any income. And the relentless pursuit of increasing profit will lead to environmentally unsustainable levels of production, with technology serving to increase inequality and accelerate climate change. Instead, technology must work for everyone, for the common good.

Wealth needs to be distributed amongst all of the people, regardless of the amount of paid work they do. One way to do this is by some means of universal basic income accompanied by a progressive taxation system on those with the means to accumulate wealth.

A UBI with progressive taxation would also serve as a deterrent to those who think their only purpose in life is to accumulate more and more wealth for themselves – this is just bad for the people and the planet.

The basic tenets of a universal basic income are that it is:

Universal: Every person, irrespective of age, descent, place of residence, profession, etc will be entitled to receive this allocation.

Individual: Everyone has the right to UBI on an individual basis, as this is the only way to ensure privacy and to prevent control over other individuals. UBI will be independent of marital status, cohabitation or household configuration, or of the income or property of other household or family members.

Unconditional: As a human right, UBI shall not depend on any preconditions, whether an obligation to take paid employment, to be involved in community service, or to behave according to traditional gender roles. Nor will it be subject to income, savings, or property limits.

High enough: The amount should provide for a decent standard of living, which meets society’s social and cultural standards in the country concerned. It should prevent material poverty and provide the opportunity to participate in society and to live in dignity. UBI should not replace the compensatory welfare state but rather complete and transform it into an emancipatory welfare system.

If adopted, the Swiss UBI would give all adults about NZ$3753 a month (2500 Swiss francs), and kids about NZ$938 a month (625 Swiss francs).

New Zealand was a big believer in universal benefits. We still have a partial UBI in the form of national superannuation, and an unconditional benefit for people with some types of disability. We used to have an unconditional family benefit until the 1980’s as well, and cheap loans for first home buyers. Then we dropped the ball in a big way.

Fortunately the Swiss are on the case. For the sake of everyone, everywhere we hope they vote “yes”.