For Lower Paid Workers, Fates Are Influenced by Robots

It’s time to stop worrying that robots will take our jobs—and start worrying that they will decide who gets jobs.

Millions of low-paid workers’ lives are increasingly governed by software and algorithms. This was starkly illustrated by a report last week that tracks the productivity of its employees and regularly fires those who under-perform, with little human intervention.

“Amazon’s system tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors,” a law firm representing Amazon said in a letter to the National Labor Relations Board, which was first reported by technology news site The Verge. Amazon was responding to a complaint that it had fired an employee from a Baltimore fulfillment center for federally protected activity, which could include union organizing. Amazon said the employee was fired for failing to meet productivity targets.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time. Software already screens resumes, recommends job applicants, schedules shifts and assigns projects. In the workplace, “sophisticated technology to track worker productivity on a minute-by-minute or even second-by-second basis is incredibly pervasive,” says Ian Larkin, a business professor at the University of California at Los Angeles specializing in human resources.

Industrial laundry services track how many seconds it takes to press a laundered shirt; on-board computers track truckers’ speed, gear changes and engine revolutions per minute; and checkout terminals at retailers report if the cashier is scanning items quickly enough to meet a preset goal. In every case, results are shared in real time with employees and used to determine who is terminated.

Weeding out under-performing employees is a function of management, and the roughly 10 percent termination rate at the Amazon center in Baltimore is “not unusually high,” Larkin said.

He said automating the discipline process “makes an already difficult job seem even more inhuman and undesirable. Dealing with these tough situations is one of the key roles of managers.”

A spokeswoman for Amazon said that “no one is terminated, coached or developed by a system,” but rather “managers make final decisions on all personnel matters.”

Source: Wall Street Journal