We’ve been warned: The robots are coming. While we might not have robot overlords anytime soon, changing technology is already making many of our workplaces increasingly dystopian. And as factories incorporate robots and automation, there will likely be job losses. Some studies estimate that up to half of the current workforce will soon see their jobs threatened by automation, and that more than four in five jobs paying less than $20 per hour could be destabilized. Yet for many the immediate concern is not replacement but repression—workplaces controlled by algorithms and surveillance.
For workers hauling and packing boxes on the outskirts of Chicago, robots are making terrible bosses: “People think of automation [as if it’s] going to replace all the jobs—which I think is a real concern in the future,” said Roberto Clack, associate director of the Chicago-based grassroots labor organization Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ). “But I think part of the story is: How is it affecting job quality currently?”
Amazon workers in Chicago, where the company is one of the largest local employers, anticipate a grim future for labor in the age of e-commerce. “Workers are pushed in a way that’s never been done before,” Clack said. “I think one of the results of automation that people need to think about is that it’s really forcing workers to work harder at each job.”
The warehousing and logistics industry that fuels retail markets has eclipsed the auto factory as today’s emblematic blue-collar job: hazard-prone, physically punishing work done by overworked and underpaid laborers with irregular schedules, many of them immigrants and people of color. Logistics is still a labor-intensive sector—employment in warehousing has soared by more than 400,000 since 2009, to well over a million jobs today. But Amazon’s production system shows how technology is ramping up efficiency not by substituting robots for workers but by making workers behave more like machines, with invasive performance-tracking systems.
In a survey of Amazon workers by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, one interviewee, “Ian” (name withheld to conceal identity), at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse recounted being strained to a breaking point, “They basically have a quota system that has you handle at least 2,000 units throughout the day. Four items per minute. Just the quota system pushes you to really not work at a pace that’s normal but at a pace where you’re almost running for the entire 10 hours.”
Another worker at the facility complained about the nearly impossible-to-reach targets: “From day one that I started working there, it was like you have to give your all and then some more. You’re not being compensated for it.”
Although Amazon is at the forefront of technological advancement in logistics, a new study by the University of California–Berkeley Labor Center reveals that retailers and logistics firms across the country are exploiting technology to make people work harder and produce more.
Beth Gutelius, co-author of the Berkeley report, said, “If you can take out some of the most arduous activity, [employers] have the potential to make the jobs better. The problem is that in the most likely scenario, those kinds of improvements are going to be counteracted by work speed-ups.”
Warehouse jobs, meanwhile, will become increasingly precarious and unstable as work is deskilled into repetitive subtasks, and the supply chain becomes “fissured” through subcontracting across multiple third-party firms. Health and safety risks on the job will likely rise, including heightened psychological strain.
Roughly two-thirds of the surveyed workers in the NYCOSH study reported experiencing pain at work; about 40 percent said they felt pain even outside work. The largest share of reported injuries, nearly a quarter, involved being “caught in, hit, or injured by machinery while performing their work duties.”
“Amazon wants to be able to…[deliver orders] within hours of when you click online to buy it,” said Clack. “There’s a real cost to that, and right now, these algorithms and systems pushing people to go faster and faster and faster in order to be able to meet that demand. There’s a real human cost to this system.”
While robotic machinery and surveillance squeeze workers at Amazon, technology has had more uneven impacts across the rest of the economy. The Century Foundation examined the macroeconomic impact of robotics over the past decade—when the recovery from the 2008 economic crisis coincided with a surge in automation in some labor-intensive workplaces—and found that robots did not pose a universal threat to workers, and in fact could yield gains in productivity and create new jobs. But the introduction of robots did undermine those in vulnerable occupations and communities. Manufacturing workers in the Rust Belt are the most vulnerable to loss of jobs and income as automation on the assembly line renders them “redundant.” The jobs most likely to be disrupted by roboticization are those involving repetition and high-volume production.
In Rust Belt manufacturing industries, the robot-human ratio more than doubled in a decade, from about 0.8 robots per thousand workers to nearly two robots per thousand workers. That might not sound significant, but an increase of merely one robot per thousand workers translated to a 3.5 percent drop in the employment rate, and a 4 to 5 percent decline in wages. Even though there was net growth post-recession, the impact of robots partially offset the recovery. In contrast to the Rust Belt stereotype of the downtrodden white working-class male, the hardest hit workers tended to be young black men and women with less formal education—a demographic that already lags behind whites in income and employment.
Technological advancement may also spell trouble for many working women. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) recently analyzed the jobs where technological disruption might compound the effects of gender segregation. It found that women are disproportionately employed in professions that are “most threatened by technological change” (those where people have 90 percent or higher likelihood of being replaced by technology)—jobs like bookkeeping and secretarial work. Across the workforce, women make up less than half the workforce but nearly six in 10 of those at highest risk of technological displacement, and Latinx women are the most at-risk group.
Even in computer-based and digital media professions, jobs are still segregated by race and gender, and the gender pay gap is vast. When working at roughly the same education level, the economic gain based on digital skills is 41 percent less for women than for men. At the same time, the female-dominated jobs that are likely to be little changed by automation—like home health care aides—are also among the lowest paid. According to IWPR, that leaves women workers with the worst of both worlds—“overrepresented in jobs that are at both the highest and lowest risk of automation,” and always at the bottom of the pay scale.
Some labor advocates see the future of work not in terms of robots and displacement but in terms of redefining fairness and equity at work.
Jobs with Justice (JWJ) argues that the most urgent crisis that technology poses to workers is dehumanization. Employers are increasingly turning to tracking devices, surveillance systems, and algorithmic models that seek to analyze a worker’s every move and predict future behavior. Companies are tethering workers to algorithms and tracking systems that relentlessly pressure them to ramp up production.
“It’s not just an efficiency problem,” said Adam Shah, senior policy analyst with JWJ. “It’s also a worker dignity and rights problem. You don’t have as many rights as we’ve come to expect [in union or] even in non-unionized workplaces…if you don’t have the ability to interrogate what is effectively your new boss, which is the algorithm.”
JWJ has also urged lawmakers to develop legislative safeguards for digital privacy and data transparency in the workplace, including banning or sharply restricting forced “datafication”—or the company’s “ability to render into data many aspects of the world that have never been quantified before.” Workers have been datafied in increasingly elaborate ways: UPS drivers’ hand-held scanning devices feed data on their driving behavior to supervisors in real time. Target has managed the speed of its checkout lines by monitoring cashiers with color-coded speed scores.
Demanding algorithmic transparency could help workers at least understand what data is being collected and how it is being processed by employers. JWJ argues that data rules for workers should go beyond the informed-consent laws that consumers mindlessly check off when purchasing an app or service; employers should establish guidelines for keeping data private, protecting people’s personal information from data breaches, and, most importantly, ensuring that workers retain ownership of their data, so that corporations are not given the ability to profit off biometric records or job-performance statistics.
Historically, the government’s usual response to mass job losses has revolved around education and training to help “dislocated” workers “upskill” and transition to new jobs. But such programs are often under-resourced and ineffective in boosting workers’ earnings. Livia Lam, director of Workforce Development at the Center for American Progress, told me that in the face of structural economic shifts, “the problem is that policy-makers turn to closing the skills gap. [But] the storytelling doesn’t quite match up to actually what’s happening in the world.” Lam said that current programs for helping retrain “dislocated” workers are not targeted toward linking people to better careers.
Lam says that to deal with major economic disruptions—not just technology but also trade fluctuations and the climate crisis—the workforce development system should go beyond just training and create a more comprehensive set of commitments between employers and workers, including health care and child care for workers in transition.
Another way to defend jobs from robots is to seek a more traditional labor protection: a union. Gutelius pointed out that unions can play a key role in “negotiating before and during a process of technological change.” And if there are layoffs or plant closures, unions could “help either negotiate with the employer to help those displaced workers, or, through union dues, they can actually provide other supports to that worker, whether it’s retraining [or] giving them time to figure out what their next move is.”
Union contracts can place safeguards around the introduction of new technology, forcing a company to consult with the union before making technological changes that could change labor conditions. UNITE HERE Marriott workers recently negotiated contract language to require consultation with the union before the company introduces any new technology. Meanwhile, the union has also pushed hotels to implement a technology that protects workers: a panic button for housekeepers to call for help if they are assaulted on the job.
Even in industries where automation drives job loss, unionization can help offset the impact: The Century Foundation found that states with higher unionization—above 17 percent—were more protected from the impact of robots. Tech-driven disruption will be subject to collective bargaining, and unions can campaign against automation and other changes that could lead to layoffs.
William Rodgers III, co-author of the Century Foundation study, said that to ensure that the gains from technology are fairly distributed, “we need Americans to be more assertive and demanding of our public policy-makers [to] create the kinds of programs that will help families in our communities be able to withstand these kinds of changes. People will be more willing to accept change when they realize that Social Security will be there for them, when they know that unemployment insurance benefits will be there for them.”
If bosses continue to exploit technology to dehumanize and displace workers, the future of work looks bleak—first for the already vulnerable and then for us all. But when workers organize to assert their economic rights and bodily autonomy, they can chart their own course toward ensuring that technology works for, not against, them.