G-SPOT

Rage against machines an impotent move by S African bankers

The union expects between 30,000 and 40,000 members across the financial industry to be involved in the strike action on Friday

In Summary

• Impasse reminds me of when ATMs first appeared and bankers in Kenya were upset their jobs would be taken over

A woman takes money from a bank's automated teller machine
A woman takes money from a bank's automated teller machine
Image: REUTERS

Unless the courts managed to stop it on Wednesday, the banks in South Africa will be on strike as you read this.

I say the banks, but, in fact, it's the staff, not management so much, but the tellers, etc. Thoughtfully, they waited until after payday (most South Africans get paid on the 25th, unless they are civil servants, for whom the 15th is when the magic happens). 

 

The union expects between 30,000 and 40,000 members across the financial industry to be involved in the strike action on Friday. Between them, South Africa’s six largest banks had 152,441 employees in 2018. This is an increase of more than 4,000 from 148,500 in 2015.

The main reason for the strike is the rapid digitisation of the industry, which has been coming for years. For some reason, the strikers believe the best way to show how indispensable they are in an age when the machines are taking over, is to down their tools, such as they are. 

The thing is, the banks have already said they will be operating pretty much as usual on the day and have told customers to make use of digital banking services as far as possible. 

Now, I don’t know about you, but apart from when the ATM has been broken, or when I’ve needed to collect my new debit card or required a very specific service from the bank, I cannot recall the last time I was inside the bank, dealing with tellers or any other officers of the bank.

In South Africa, as elsewhere, I presume, many local banks have closed several branches because digitisation encourages self-service, with clients using their mobile phones and computers, rather than walking into a branch.

In fact, the global banking industry has evolved in the last few years in response to the changing way their customers use and consume financial services. Think of Kenya and the M-Pesa revolution.

As a result, the reduction of staff numbers in many traditional banking services has led the banking industry to restructure their businesses to ensure they remain sustainable and relevant to the needs of consumers, and those are just the hard facts of the matter.

 

While of course, I recognise the rights of bank workers to engage in protest action, I really cannot for the life of me see how it will help to address the realities of the current situation, where information technology has brought about the automation of many banking services.

It reminds me of when ATMs first appeared and bankers in Kenya were upset that their jobs would be taken over. Once they got used to the idea, people showed an overwhelming preference for the ATM against the choice of using bank cashier to make a cash withdrawal.

Now, it seems even the once much-loved ATM may be facing its sunset with the increased use of mobile money, which has given banks no choice but to link their systems with those of telecoms.

However, perhaps all is not lost for the bank tellers, especially if they can be retrained to pitch loans, guide local entrepreneurs, and offer technical support. But to protest by not working isn’t the best idea.