Robots step in as cheap labor dries up in Eastern Europe

An employee works during a shift at a plastic products factory which churns out more than a million plastic parts a day, in western Hungary. (Reuters)
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Updated 10 March 2020

Robots step in as cheap labor dries up in Eastern Europe

  • Staffing companies say thousands of jobs could vanish
  • Reputation for ‘cheap labor’ appears to be forgotten

KOSZARHEGY, HUNGARY: Istvan Simon’s factory in western Hungary churns out more than a million plastic parts a day but on a busy morning in one of its large production halls there is only the sound of machines clicking and whirring. Workers have all but disappeared.

Similar transformations are underway on production lines across the European Union’s eastern wing as surging wage bills undermine the region’s reputation as a cheap production base. Factory owners from Hungary to the Czech Republic and Poland find themselves with little choice but to invest in the automation of their manufacturing processes if they want to remain competitive.
Manufacturing in the region has boomed since the EU expanded eastwards in the mid 2000s, with companies such as automakers Audi and Daimler opening local production lines and spawning supplier ecosystems, but more recently strong economic growth has led to a shortage of workers and rising wages.
“We can see human labor being replaced with machinery and artificial intelligence,” Hungarian union leader Zoltan Laszlo said. “Not just in the car sector ... but also in the steel and machinery industries.
“Such investments can already be seen in these sectors, leading to job losses. You need to glue numerous tiny slivers together and all of a sudden you get the big picture.”
Employment figures are one indication the region’s industry may be at a turning point.
While Hungary’s economy grew nearly 5 percent last year and manufacturing investments rose at the fastest pace in three years, the sector shed nearly 23,000 jobs, ending a six-year run of annual employment growth. Czech data showed a year-on-year loss of almost a thousand manufacturing jobs in the third quarter of 2019, suggesting employment in the sector could have declined for the first time since 2013 over the full year.
“There are no operators in this hall right now,” said Peter Simon, chief executive of Simon Plastics, as he overlooked a line of machines making plugs for car parts, a key product line at the company founded by Istvan, his father, 35 years ago.
“Wages are going up, the prices of robots are coming down, so this is the way to get returns,” he said. Looking to expand output but pressured by surging wages and falling prices, all of the company’s recent 1 billion forint ($3.32 million) investment was spent on automation.
The company hasn’t cut any of its 400 jobs so far, finding other positions for those whose work has been replaced by robots, but it intends to automate its remaining manual work after a 50 percent jump in operator wages over the past three years.

Job losses
Although the automation process has so far been a gradual one, Josef Stredula, head of the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions, said based on various estimates up to 10 percent of jobs could disappear.
“Big changes are awaiting us,” Stredula said, adding that while automation may ease the burden of heavy or repetitive manual work it was important to ease the transition, for example by retraining affected workers.
“We have to do everything to make the future not so bleak but relatively easier for everyone.”

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400 - The company hasn’t cut any of its 400 jobs so far, finding other positions for those whose work has been replaced by robots, but it intends to automate its remaining manual work after a 50 percent jump in operator wages over the past three years.

Staffing company Hays recently noted that the average annual wage increase in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary of around 10% was far higher than in many western countries and estimated that almost 5% of Hungarian jobs, or 200,000 roles, could be fully automated over the next decade.
Hungarian recruitment portal profession.hu registered an 11 percent fall in manufacturing sector job postings last year. In the Czech Republic, Grafton Recruitment has seen a similar drop, while consultancy Deloitte has estimated around half of current jobs could be replaced by machines.
“It is only a question of when it will be more economical for most companies to start with automation on a much bigger scale,” said David Marek, Deloitte’s chief economist in Prague.

Not black and white
At a distribution center near Prague, Czech yoghurt maker Hollandia Karlovy Vary installed three robotic arms last year to sort and load yoghurts onto pallets, replacing the work of 10 people who were moved to other positions.
Meanwhile, Poland’s largest clothing retailer LPP plans to invest in logistics and automation in a bid to improve margins and combat higher labor costs.
Judit Kovacs, a manager at human resources company Randstad , said factories with high capacity utilization in western Hungary had started reducing headcount by attrition over the past year, while new plants in eastern Hungary were being planned with a high degree of automation as investors looked to curb their labor market exposure.
It’s not only manufacturing that is falling to the machines, insurance company Allianz’s Hungarian unit, for example, is automating data processing to offset rising wage costs.
The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) expects robot sales in major Eastern European economies to rise through 2022 but although it acknowledges that some jobs will disappear, it does not foresee a major net effect on employment.
“The question is not do I invest in manual labor or automation,” IFR General Secretary Susanne Bieller said, explaining that automation could help companies maintain a competitive edge over cheaper production hubs elsewhere in the world.
“You cannot see this in black-and-white terms.”


S&P 500 inches closer to record high

Updated 12 August 2020

S&P 500 inches closer to record high

  • US stock market index returns to levels last seen before the onset of coronavirus crisis

NEW YORK: The S&P 500 on Tuesday closed in on its February record high, returning to levels last seen before the onset of the coronavirus crisis that caused one of Wall Street’s most dramatic crashes in history.

The benchmark index was about half a percent below its peak hit on Feb. 19, when investors started dumping shares in anticipation of what proved to be the biggest slump in the US economy since the Great Depression.

Ultra-low interest rates, trillions of dollars in stimulus and, more recently, a better-than-feared second quarter earnings season have allowed all three of Wall Street’s main indexes to recover.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq has led the charge, boosted by “stay-at-home winners” Amazon.com Inc., Netflix Inc. and Apple Inc. The index was down about 0.4 percent.

The blue chip Dow surged 1.2 percent, coming within 5 percent of its February peak.

“You’ve got to admit that this is a market that wants to go up, despite tensions between US-China, despite news of the coronavirus not being particularly encouraging,” said Andrea Cicione, a strategist at TS Lombard.

“We’re facing an emergency from the health, economy and employment point of view — the outlook is a lot less rosy. There’s a disconnect between valuation and the actual outlook even though lower rates to some degree justify high valuation.”

Aiding sentiment, President Vladimir Putin claimed Russia had become the first country in the world to grant regulatory approval to a COVID-19 vaccine. But the approval’s speed has concerned some experts as the vaccine still must complete final trials.

Investors are now hoping Republicans and Democrats will resolve their differences and agree on another relief program to support about 30 million unemployed Americans, as the battle with the virus outbreak was far from over with US cases surpassing 5 million last week.

Also in focus are Sino-US tensions ahead of high-stakes trade talks in the coming weekend.

“Certainly the rhetoric from Washington has been negative with regards to China ... there’s plenty of things to worry about, but markets are really focused more on the very easy fiscal and monetary policies at this point,” said Paul Nolte, portfolio manager at Kingsview Asset Management in Chicago.

Financials, energy and industrial sectors, that have lagged the benchmark index this year, provided the biggest boost to the S&P 500 on Tuesday.

The S&P 500 was set to rise for the eighth straight session, its longest streak of gains since April 2019.

The S&P 500 was up 15.39 points, or 0.46 percent, at 3,375.86, about 18 points shy of its high of 3,393.52. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 341.41 points, or 1.23 percent, at 28,132.85, and the Nasdaq Composite was down 48.37 points, or 0.44 percent, at 10,919.99.

Royal Caribbean Group jumped 4.6 percent after it hinted at new safety measures aimed at getting sailing going again after months of cancellations. Peers Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. and Carnival Corp. also rose.

US mall owner Simon Property Group Inc. gained 4.1 percent despite posting a disappointing second quarter profit, as its CEO expressed some hope over a recovery in retail as lockdown measures in some regions eased.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners 3.44-to-1 on the NYSE and 1.44-to-1 on the Nasdaq.

The S&P index recorded 35 new 52-week highs and no new low, while the Nasdaq recorded 50 new highs and four new lows.