Rapid advances in technology, leading to the rise in internet banking, means that banks need fewer people and fewer bricks-and-mortar facilities to serve clients. File picture: Reuters
Can the South African banking industry truly claim to be in a situation where it needs to cut costs?

This is an industry which, according to South African Market Insights, had total assets in South Africa of R5.686 trillion in April, up from R5.202 trillion a year before. This represented growth of 9.3% in total assets.

The banks recorded gross loans and advances of R4.251 trillion in April, up from R3.893 trillion for growth of 9.2% year-on-year. This was “pretty strong and aggressive growth” for the industry in an economy struggling to grow by more than 1% a year, and in which one-third of employable people cannot find a job.

But this is also the industry contemplating retrenching workers, leading to a planned strike in the sector tomorrow. Rapid advances in technology, leading to the rise in internet banking, means that banks need fewer people and fewer bricks-and-mortar facilities to serve clients. And clients have been quick to adopt the new technology for the convenience it offers.

Who wants to stand in a queue in a bank if the same objective can be achieved with a few clicks on a computer keyboard or, increasingly, from the palm by cellphone?

The advance of technology is inevitable and inexorable, as is the loss of jobs it is usually accompanied by.

Who is to blame here? The developers of technology? The businesses which adopt such technology? Ordinary people - who include those standing to lose their jobs - who use such technology?

Or should we point the finger at the unions which, despite being aware of technological advances for decades, have done nothing to prepare their members for the digital future?

In the present example, telephone, internet and cellphone banking have existed in South Africa for decades, and none but the uninformed could not foresee the job losses coming.

Unions need to do more than just strike for increases and against retrenchments. They need to keep abreast of broader industrial developments, anticipate how these will affect their members, and then prepare them to meet these challenges.

While one could appeal to the sympathies of a strong industry like the bankers, resisting the adoption of new technologies to save jobs carries the certain risk of South Africa being left behind while the rest of the world sprints ahead.