Further to an earlier post on robots, automation and their future effect on employment is this Salon excerpt from the book “Mindless: Why smarter machines are making dumber humans” by Simon Head. Its case study of some of Amazon’s warehousing operations around the world shows why for many jobs, being replaced by a robot will be a blessing if something more “human” can be found to do.
As at Walmart, Amazon achieves this with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dextrous employees will begin to fail. As at Walmart, there is a pervasive “three strikes and you’re out” culture, and when these marginal employees acquire too many demerits (“points”), they are fired.
Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. In a fine piece of investigative reporting for the London Financial Times, economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.
All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences. At Amazon’s depot in Allentown, Pennsylvania (of which more later), Kate Salasky worked shifts of up to eleven hours a day, mostly spent walking the length and breadth of the warehouse. In March 2011 she received a warning message from her manager, saying that she had been found unproductive during several minutes of her shift, and she was eventually fired. This employee tagging is now in operation at Amazon centers worldwide.
People cannot operate as machines and nor should they be asked to. Yet some companies business models rely on it to make a profit. Either we accept higher prices and slower turnaround for their products or they become fully automated and their displaced employees are found something more rewarding to do.