On automation and worker surveillance
Before Covid-19 hit, we'd become used to reports about Amazon's robotics innovations and the impending large-scale automation of warehouse jobs. But recent strikes and protests by Amazon's very human workers have exposed how far we are from robotic warehouses. In fact, as part of its effort to keep its warehouses fully staffed during the crisis, Amazon recently announced that it is ending its recently-instituted sick leave and base pay expansions, replacing both with increased overtime pay. While higher pay encourages more workers to apply for jobs, overtime incentivizes existing workers to work longer hours. Amazon’s strategy for increasing output in the pandemic seems to be getting its human employees to work harder.
In late-February, I took what must have been one of the last public tours of an Amazon warehouse in Edison, New Jersey. Prepared to witness vast and impression automation, I was met instead by a traffic jam of workers exiting the facility. Inside, there were of course robots—shelving units known as "pods," whizzing stuff from one end of the warehouse to the other—performing tasks previously done by people with forklifts. (According to Amazon, these robots have raised productivity of the remaining workers by orders of magnitude.) But there were other innovative technologies on view, at the workstations of human “stowers,” who distribute incoming products to the pods, “pickers,” who take items off the pods to fulfil orders, and “packers,” who put the orders in boxes and tape them shut. Over their shoulders, there were clocks counting down how much time each worker had to complete each task. The technology tracks which workers fall behind, and ‘learns’ how hard it can push them. In place of a human foreman, Amazon's timers dictate the pace of work and mete out automated discipline.