Ongoing debates center on whether robots will take people’s jobs, and if so, how soon. The estimates about those things vary wildly, but one thing that often gets overlooked is that some warehouse employees are already getting overshadowed as companies embrace automation technology.
Amazon’s Robots Can Pack Customers’ Orders
In May 2019, Reuters reported that Amazon introduced machines to take thousands of jobs held by humans. The equipment packs items into boxes before shipment. Each warehouse getting this equipment will reportedly receive two of the machines. That setup would replace the roles held by 24 workers in warehouses that typically employ more than 2,000 people.
If Amazon brings the new robots to all the fulfillment centers it intends, that decision will affect 1,300 jobs. Amazon insists the cost savings achieved by the machines would allow them to invest in new services for customers, creating new positions. However, it did not go into specifics.
When speaking to the BBC, Tye Brady, the company’s chief robotics technologist, said he never sees a point where Amazon’s warehouses will be fully automated. Brady clarified, “The way that I think about this is a symphony of humans and machines working together, you need both.”
The tricky thing is, Brady’s right. Even Amazon’s new packing machines still need humans to handle some tasks associated with them. But, the number of people required is not as many as before, which means some jobs get lost.
Automation Generally Arrives at a Company Gradually
Not all automation technology replaces workers quickly or at all. Sometimes, it makes their jobs easier. For example, an advantage associated with automated systems is that they can give real-time information, letting customers or retailers know what’s in stock, and frequently indicating the exact number of items available. Such a perk saves time and boosts transparency.
It’s rare for automation to overtake a company quickly. Representatives usually look at the most time-intensive tasks or the ones that require the most accuracy and consider applying automation to those things. They wait for results before scaling up.
Company representatives want to feel relatively certain that they’ll see substantial payoffs from bringing automation to a company. That may mean if workers fear it’ll affect them, they’ll have time to look for new kinds of work or get trained to learn another skill.
Automation Could Threaten Workers’ Well-Being
A report from the UC Berkley Labor Center explored the future of warehouse work in the face of automation. It cautioned that the use of automation in warehouses may increase the intensity and speed of work expected by humans. Such acceleration could pose new health and safety hazards.
Some workers may decide they can’t tolerate it anymore and quit. Additionally, the warehouses are often not properly climate-controlled, which could exacerbate temperature-related dangers.
Outside of worker well-being, the UC Berkley report confirmed that the associated researchers don’t expect automation to cause widespread job loss in the short-to-medium term. However, it said people may see their duties shift due to automation and other technologies over the next 5-10 years.
An Automated System May Cause an Employee’s Termination
Other reports indicate that Amazon’s warehouse workers should worry about automation firing them if they’re not productive enough based on the company’s rigid standards. More specifically, documents obtained by The Verge show that people getting fired for productivity reasons is more common than people on the outside think.
The Verge’s documents indicate that the automated tech tracks individual employee performance and automatically issues warnings or terminations based on the data. Supervisors can override those decisions, but they initially get distributed through the system and to employees without nods of approval from human managers.
The Verge’s information shows that thousands of Amazon’s workers may lose their jobs annually for not being fast or high-quality enough. Stacy Mitchell, the co-director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, is vocal about Amazon criticism and was quoted in The Verge’s article.
Mitchell explained, “One of the things that we hear consistently from workers is that they are treated like robots in effect because they’re monitored and supervised by these automated systems. They’re monitored and supervised by robots.”
That’s scary because, in situations that are not so heavily automated, people can point out various attributes about themselves that might make them less at risk for getting asked to leave. For example, they could point out how they’re always willing to do different tasks when asked by managers, they have upbeat personalities or consistently mentored new employees. An automated system may not know or care about those things.
Not a Fast Transition, But One in Progress
It should now be clear that robots aren’t taking lots of warehouse jobs yet. However, they’re already causing concerns and losses for some employees.