May 13, 2019
Amazon is starting to roll out new box-packing robots, which look set to make human workers even more dispensable in Amazon’s warehouses.
The new robots are supposedly five times more efficient than humans, being able to pack as many as 700 customer orders in an hour.
These new machines will likely pose a grave threat to Amazon warehouse workers’ already-precarious jobs.
How Many Jobs are Under Threat?
According to Reuters, which spoke to sources familiar with CMC Srl, the Italian company that manufactures the $1 million box-packing automatons, as many as 1,300 jobs are under threat in the US.
Amazon has 55 warehouses — or fulfilment centers, as the online retail behemoth calls them — across the US. These new robots could make “at least 24 roles at each one” redundant, Reuters reports.
However, Amazon said that it would refrain from making any actual redundancies at this stage. Instead, when fulfilment center workers left their posts, the company wouldn’t hire a replacement. This seems like a neat way of balancing the needs of the company and its workers, the fact is that employee turnover in warehouse roles is so high that Amazon need not bother making redundancies at all.
Automation feels like the inevitable progression for a workplace that has long been criticized for its tough working conditions. According to the Guardian, workers in Amazon’s warehouses can walk as much as fourteen miles every day. According to union website Organise, Amazon fulfilment center workers are expected to box up 120 items per hour.
The world’s largest retailer did say that employees that stay with the company can be trained to take up more technical roles — but, staying in the warehouse is often easier said than done.
Why is Amazon Bringing in More Automation?
Automating as many roles as possible does have obvious business benefits for Amazon, however. Human pairs of hands are arguable the weakest link in its (still frighteningly efficient) shipping operation and have significant ongoing costs, despite warehouse workers’ low wages.
Amazon’s workers have also become more active in creating unions, calling for greater job security and improved wages. Striking workers are never a good look for a company, especially when they end in violence, as happened at one warehouse strike in Spain last year.
Machines, on the other hand, don’t go on strike or need to be paid. And, despite the large up-front cost of the machines, Amazon would be able to recover the costs in under two years.
According to Amazon, though, its reasons are far more wholesome: “We are piloting this new technology with the goal of increasing safety, speeding up delivery times and adding efficiency across our network,” an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement to Reuters. “We expect the efficiency savings will be re-invested in new services for customers, where new jobs will continue to be created.”
It’s likely this push for automation will make the retail behemoth even more profitable. Founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos — also the world’s richest person — may even get to travel to the moon.
So, more profits for Jeff, faster deliveries for customers, but a loss of livelihood for vulnerable, precarious workers. Is it prime time Amazon was held to account over its march towards automation?
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