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Robots versus immigrants: which group would “steal” the most British jobs?

We look behind sensationalist headlines to figure out whether Great British Jobs™ are being robbed by robots or taken over by immigrants.

By 2035, you’ll be lucky to have a job. According to the Bank of England’s chief economist, nearly half of all British workers will be replaced in the next two decades. But by who?

If you base all of your worldly judgements on the rants of your drunk uncle Nigel and the fact you can now get pierogi in Tesco, then the answer is easy: immigrants.

If you pay closer attention to global trends (and the self-checkout machine you use to buy your pierogi in Tesco), then the answer is very different: robots.

As far as scaremongering and selling papers goes, “stealing your jobs” is a great way to end a headline. But with robots and immigrants getting equal press for snatching Great British Jobs™, which group should you really be worried about? Is Roboxit the only answer?

Let’s start broadly. Between 1997 and 2016, the number of non-UK nationals working in the UK increased from 966,000 to 3.45 million. That’s around 138,000 new working immigrants a year, meaning that if trends continued, there would be nearly 4.7 million foreign-born workers in the UK by 2035. That’s a headline-worthy number of jobs “stolen”, we’re sure, if it weren’t for the fact that the aforementioned chief economist of the Bank of England predicted precisely 15 million British jobs will be lost to robots by that very same year.

Which is all very well and good, of course, but what about the immigrants who are “stealing” our gosh darn jobs right nowAccording to the University of Oxford's Migration Observatory, the industry with the highest share of foreign-born workers in 2014 was “food products manufacturing”, whereby 38 per cent of the workforce were not born in the UK. Next came the “domestic personnel” sector, where 32 per cent were foreign-born workers, followed by the “manufacturing of wearing apparel” at 29 per cent.

Having a third of an entire industry’s jobs filled by migrants is sure to get your jowls a-quivering, and a customary angry wave of the Union Jack might be necessary at this point. But how do these figures compare to the robots who have replaced such jobs? Deloitte, a giant professional services firm, has examined census records from every decade since 1871 to analyse how technology has affected employment. It found that jobs that require “muscle power” – such as factory workers and domestic personnel – decreased dramatically from 23.7 per cent of total employment in 1871 to 8.3 per cent in 2011, due to technological advancements.

Long before the dramatic rise of immigration to the UK in the 1990s, robots and machines were making us redundant.  

“But what about taxi drivers!” you cry. “They’re all foreign, eh? Eh!” True enough, it has been alleged that one in seven UK taxi drivers are from Pakistan, which, if true, means 15 per cent of the industry’s jobs have been snatched away from poor, poor ol’ Brits. But 15 per cent, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a lot less than the 100 per cent of taxi-driving jobs that are currently under threat from driverless cars.

The new technology is predicted to eliminate millions of jobs worldwide, affecting everyone from limo to truck to taxi to bus to ambulance to van drivers in the coming decades. There are 2.5 million white van drivers in the UK, 242,000 licensed taxi drivers, 600,000 Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) licensed drivers, and in 2011 there were just over 47,000 registered driving instructors. That’s 3,389,000 driving jobs in the UK, before we even consider the buses. Every single working immigrant in the UK would have to take up a transport job today in order to take as many jobs as driverless cars will in the next few decades.

But who cares about drivers and factory workers when the NHS has said that 4 per cent of registered nurses are EU migrants and a further 5 per cent of NHS staff are from a non-EU country? Nursing is one industry that hasn’t been affected by the rise of the robots, as Deloitte concludes that the 909 per cent increase in nurses between 1992 and 2014 is because technology is not yet sufficient to replace caring and social work roles. The immigrants then, are “stealing” far more nursing jobs than the robots.

If only, of course, there wasn’t a nursing staffing crisis in the NHS. Immigrants aren’t stealing healthcare jobs from Brits, but are actually filling posts that have remained vacant for years. Data recently obtained by the BBC shows that the NHS had over 23,443 nursing vacancies at the end of 2015, and experts have already predicted that Brexit will make staff shortages worse.

When we imagine robot workers we think of creaky, metallic versions of you and me. In actual fact, they are the self-checkout machines in your local McDonald’s and the giant mechanical arms in our factories that have been silently encroaching on British jobs for decades. Technology has destroyed British jobs for thousands of years, well before Queen Elizabeth I refused to patent a new knitting machine in 1589 for fear it would put people out of work. In May, the technology company Foxconn replaced 60,000 Chinese factory workers with robots. In contrast, no one has yet been able to prove conclusively that immigration actually does negatively affect British employment.

All of this is to say nothing of the fact that both immigrants and robots actually create jobs and boost the economy. Ironically, too, the people who will suffer most from job automation are immigrants, as experts have predicted that, post-Brexit, most EU migrants’ jobs will go to robots.  

Don’t worry, though, if you’ll miss being bigoted by the realisation that robots, not immigrants, are stealing your jobs. Why? Well, because, if you want to get technical, most of our robots are immigrants anyway.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Lol enforcement: meet the man policing online joke theft

A story of revenge, retweets, and Kale Salad. 

A man walks into a bar and he tells a joke. The man next to him laughs – and then he tells the same joke. The man next to him, in turn, repeats the joke. That bar’s name is Twitter.

If you’ve been on the social network for more than five minutes, you’ll notice that joke theft is rampant on the site. Search, for example, for a popular tweet this week (“did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything” – 153,000 retweets) and you’ll see it has been copied 53 times in the last three days.

One instance of plagiarism, however, is unlike the others. Its perpetrator is the meme account @dory and its quick Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V has over 3,500 retweets. This account frequently copies the viral posts of Twitter users and passes them off – word for word – as its own. Many similar accounts do the same, including @CWGirl and @FatJew, and many make money by promoting advertising messages to their large number of followers. Twitter joke theft, then, is profitable.

In 2015, Twitter promised to clamp down on the unchecked plagiarism on its site. “This Tweet from [user] has been withheld in response to a report from the copyright holder,” read a message meant to replace stolen jokes on the site. It’s likely a message you’ve never seen.

Dissatisfied with this solution, one man took it upon himself to fight the thieves. 

“I'm a like happy internet kind of guy,” says Samir Mezrahi, a 34-year-old from New York who runs the Twitter account @KaleSalad. For the last six months, Mezrahi has used the account to source and retweet the original writers of Twitter jokes. Starting with a few hundred followers at the end of December 2016, Mezrahi had jumped to 50,000 followers by January 2017. Over 82,000 people now follow his account.  

“I've always been a big fan of like viral tweets and great tweets,” explains Mezrahi, over the sound of his children watching cartoons in the background. “A lot of people were fed up with the meme accounts so it’s just like a good opportunity to reward creators and people.”

Samir Mezrahi, owner of @KaleSalad

I had expected Mezrahi to be a teen. In actual fact he is a father of three and an ex-Buzzfeed employee, who speaks in a calm monotone, yet is enthusiastic about sharing the best content on Twitter. Though at first sourcing original tweets for Kale Salad was hard work, people now approach Mezrahi for help.

“People still reach out to me looking for vindication and just that kind of, I don’t know, that kind of acknowledgement that they were the originals. Because all so often the meme accounts are much larger and their tweets do better than the stolen tweet.”

But just why does having a tweet stolen suck so much? In the grand scheme of things, does it matter? Did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything?

Meryl O’Rourke is a comedian and writer who tweets at @MerylORourke, and now has a copyright symbol (©) after her Twitter name. In the past she has had her jokes stolen and reposted, unattributed, on Facebook and Twitter and hopes this symbol will go some way to protecting her work.

“It’s hard to explain how it felt... as a struggling writer you’re always waiting for anything that looks like recognition as it could lead to your break,” she explains. “When your work gains momentum you feel like your opportunity ran off without you.

“Twitter is a test of a writer’s skill. To spend time choosing exactly the right words to convey your meaning with no nuance or explanation, and ensure popularity and a chuckle, in the space of only 140 characters – that’s hard work.”

However, Mezrahi has found not everyone is bothered by their tweets being stolen. I found the same man I reached out to with a stolen tweet who said he didn’t want to speak to me because it felt too “first world problems” to complain. Writers like O’Rourke are naturally more annoyed than random teenagers, who Mezrahi says are normally actually pleased about the theft.

“If you go to [a teenager’s] timeline it’s always the same thing. They’re replying to all their friends saying like ‘I’m famous’, they’re retweeting the meme accounts saying like ‘I did it’… they don’t mind as much it seems. It’s kind of like a badge of honour to them.”

Sometimes, people even ask Kale Salad to unretweet their posts. College students with scholarships, in particular, might not actually want to go viral – or some viral tweets may accidentally include personal information. On the whole, however, people are grateful for his work.

Yet the Kale Salad account does have unintended consequences. Mezrahi has now been blocked by the major meme accounts that frequently steal jokes, meaning he had to create alternate accounts to view their content. But just because he can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t see him – and he has noticed that these accounts now actually come to his profile to steal jokes he has retweeted, in a strange role-reversal.

“There are definitely times when they're picking up things that I just retweeted, like I know they're like looking at me too,” he says. “It feels like vindicated or validated that they come to me.”

Mezrahi now works in social media on a freelance basis, but would be open to making Kale Salad profitable. Earlier this year he set up an account on Patreon – a site that allows fans to pay their favourite creators. Some people didn’t approve of this, tweeting to say he is “just retweeting tweets”. So far, Mezrahi has three patrons who pay him $50 (£39) a month.

“I mean I spend a certain amount of time on this and I think it’s a pretty good service, so I've been thinking about monetisation and thought that might be a route,” he explains. He believes he is providing an important service by “amplifying” creators, and he didn’t want to make money in less transparent ways, such as by posting sponsored advertisements on his account. Yet although many online love Kale Salad, they don’t, as of yet, want to pay him.

“Twitter should buy my account because I’m doing a good thing that people like every day,” he muses.

Many might still be sceptical of the value of a joke vigilante. For those whose jokes aren’t their bread or butter, tweet theft may seem like a very minimal problem. And although it arguably is, it’s still incredibly annoying. Writing in Playboy, Rob Fee explains it best:

“How upsetting is it when you tell a joke quietly in a group of friends, then someone else says it louder and gets a huge laugh? Now imagine your friend following you every day listening for more jokes because people started throwing money at him every time he repeated what you said. Also, that friend quit his job because he made enough to live comfortably by telling your jokes louder than you can. Odds are, you’d quickly decide to find new friends.”

For now, then, Kale Salad will continue his work as the unpaid internet police. “As long as people like the service, I don’t mind doing it. If that's a year or two years or what we'll see how the account goes,” he says.

“Twitter is fun and I like the fun days on the internet and I like to help contribute to that.

“The internet is for fun and not all the sadness that’s often there.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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