Bosses don’t care. Soon they will only need ro­bots

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - John Har­ris

As any­one with a TV will know,

Ama­zon’s Christ­mas ad cam­paign is built around a sur­real fan­ta­sia in which its de­liv­ery boxes ac­quire voices and be­come a global choir, belt­ing out the Jack­sons’ 1980 hit Can You Feel It. It’s pretty clear why Ama­zon chose the song: the mu­sic con­veys eu­phoric op­ti­mism, while its lyrics evoke a feel­good creed to which ev­ery­one could sign up: “If you look around / The whole world’s com­ing to­gether now … All the colours of the world should be / Lovin’ each other whole­heart­edly.”

While Jeff Be­zos’s com­pany pushes its work­ers through the frenzy of Christ­mas, some are try­ing to make that prom­ise of hu­man unity and uni­ver­sal hope a lit­tle more spe­cific. In New York, em­ploy­ees at a “ful­fil­ment cen­tre” in Staten Is­land have an­nounced that they want to break through the com­pany’s long­stand­ing hos­til­ity to or­gan­ised labour and col­lec­tively unionise. On Black Fri­day there were strikes and protests by Ama­zon work­ers in Spain, Ger­many, France, Italy and the UK against low wages and “in­hu­man con­di­tions”. In Aus­tralia, where the com­pany has been op­er­at­ing for only a year, two unions have com­bined to try and or­gan­ise Ama­zon work­ers af­ter one ac­tivist was sacked from his agency job at a ful­fil­ment cen­tre in Syd­ney.

A fas­ci­nat­ing story is be­ing played out in Min­ne­ap­o­lis, where a group of So­ma­lia-born work­ers has pushed Ama­zon to ac­cept a very lim­ited form of col­lec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The de­tails of the story in­clude the com­pany’s de­ci­sion to in­crease pack­ing tar­gets from 160 items an hour to 230, and work­ers’ in­sis­tence that de­mands should slacken as peo­ple fast over Ra­madan. There is still a long way to go, but Ama­zon has at least changed some man­age­ment prac­tices at the ware­house and agreed to meet work­ers four times a year.

In terms of PR, the com­pany has one de­pend­able card to play: thanks partly to pres­sure from US sen­a­tor and for­mer pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Bernie San­ders, it has raised its min­i­mum hourly wage in the US from $11 to $15 and its low­est Bri­tish rate from £8 ($10) to £9.50. At the same time, how­ever, Ama­zon has done away with share and in­cen­tive schemes, whose loss will re­port­edly cost some UK work­ers up to £1,500 a year.

In any case, any­one with even a pass­ing in­ter­est knows what de­fines work at Ama­zon’s sharp end, no mat­ter what the go­ing rate: fran­tic work­ing un­der con­stant scru­tiny, a cul­ture in which ba­sic hu­man de­mands too of­ten come sec­ond to in­creased ef­fi­ciency, and ques­tions about safety that will not go away. Many Ama­zon ware­house work­ers carry hand­held com­put­ers that mon­i­tor and con­trol their move­ment and the rate at which they com­plete their tasks. But soon enough that kind of tech­nol­ogy may be su­per­seded by “aug­mented re­al­ity”. Work­ers in a host of oc­cu­pa­tions will soon be wear­ing head­sets and gog­gles that com­bine their view of im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings with in­struc­tions that may re­peat­edly flash in front of their eyes. Ama­zon patented its ver­sion of this tech­nol­ogy – which it calls “aug­mented re­al­ity user in­ter­face fa­cil­i­tat­ing ful­fil­ment” – in 2017. To quote one re­port, the de­vice can “de­tect where a per­son is at all times and when they have stopped mov­ing”. Most im­por­tantly, it also means that the de­mands of ef­fi­ciency can be beamed di­rect into peo­ple’s heads. Who would want to work like that?

Given Be­zos’s in­cred­i­ble wealth and his com­pany’s pretty much un­chal­lenged dom­i­nance of on­line re­tail­ing, why does Ama­zon seem­ingly treat so many of its work­ers so badly? At the risk of sound­ing naive, in­stead of him look­ing like a car­i­ca­tured cap­i­tal­ist from an old Soviet pro­pa­ganda poster, why not be­have bet­ter?

One an­swer is blunt: that the idea of mean­ing­fully phi­lan­thropic cap­i­tal­ism, along with a role at the heart of busi­ness for trade unions, be­gan to wither around the time the post­war wel­farist dream breathed its last, in the early 1980s. Three decades on, one of the most de­press­ing as­pects of Ama­zon’s rise is the way pub­lic au­thor­i­ties who jos­tle to bring of­fices and ware­houses to their ar­eas blithely hand out tax breaks but never seem to in­sist on the most ba­sic labour stan­dards. And nei­ther, of course, do the rest of us – it’s one of the ben­e­fits of a model of con­sumerism in which peo­ple re­motely click away and never see the sys­tems that ser­vice their wants.

Up close, the de­vel­op­ment of the tech Ama­zon has used over the last two decades con­firms some­thing glar­ingly ob­vi­ous. Last year, I was in­vited in­side the com­pany’s cut­ting-edge ful­fil­ment cen­tre near Manch­ester air­port, where ro­bot “drives” scut­tle around bring­ing items to pick­ers, and the speed at which or­ders are pro­cessed is flatly sur­real. Most hu­man work­ers were re­ally only place­hold­ers.

Across so-called lo­gis­tics, re­search is fo­cused on ma­chines aimed at re­plac­ing hu­man hands. In that sense, a cold and clin­i­cal cor­po­rate mind might come to a sim­ple con­clu­sion: why worry about the predica­ment of mere work­ers when they soon won’t be needed? Con­trary to the op­ti­mistic stuff we hear about au­to­ma­tion, it looks like the path to some imag­ined work­less econ­omy in­volves the re­al­i­ties of many peo­ple’s em­ploy­ment con­di­tions get­ting steadily worse. It’s a two-step process: you even­tu­ally lose your job to a ro­bot, but the first thing you sur­ren­der is your self-re­spect.

The valiant union ac­tivists who are start­ing to chal­lenge what all this means de­serve noth­ing but praise: soon enough, their ex­am­ple will be fol­lowed in many other places. The rest of us would do well to re­alise that be­hind all that Christ­mas click­ing lies a bur­geon­ing dystopia. As the song goes, can you feel it? •

In this model of con­sumerism, peo­ple re­motely click away and never see the sys­tems that ser­vice their wants

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