Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Employees as computer-controlled automatons

with 6 comments

This is the future that large corporations hope to create for you, previewed in an Amazon UK warehouse, reported in the Daily Mail by Sarah Connor—sorry: Sarah O’Connor. A natural mistake, as you see when you read the article:

Between a sooty power station and a brown canal on the edge of a small Midlands town, there is a long blue building that looks like a smear of summer sky on the damp industrial landscape.

Inside, hundreds of people in orange vests are pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing at the screens of their hand-held satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there.

They do not dawdle — the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity. They might each walk between seven and 15 miles today.

Before they can go home at the end of their eight-hour shift, or go to the canteen for their 30-minute break, they must walk through a set of airport-style security scanners to prove they are not stealing anything.

Scroll down for video.

Amazon warehouse

They also walk past a life-sized cardboard image of a cheery blonde woman in an orange vest. ‘This is the best job I have ever had!’ says a speech bubble near her head.

If you could slice the world in half here, you could read the history of this Staffordshire town in the layers. Below the ground are the tunnels of the coal mine that fed the power station and was once the local economy’s beating heart. Above the ground are the trolleys and computers of Amazon, the global online retailer that has taken its place.

As online shopping explodes in Britain, helping to push traditional retailers such as HMV out of business, more and more jobs are moving from High Street shops into warehouses like this one.

Under pressure over its tax arrangements, Amazon has tried to stress how many jobs it is creating across the country at a time of economic malaise.

The undisputed behemoth of the online retail world has invested more than £1 billion in its UK operations and announced last year that it would open another three warehouses over the next two years and create 2,000 more permanent jobs.

Amazon even had a quote from the Prime Minister, in its September press release. ‘This is great news, not only for those individuals who will find work, but for the UK economy,’ said David Cameron.

The undisputed behemoth of the online retail world has invested more than £1billion in its UK operations

People in Rugeley felt exactly the same way in the summer of 2011 when they heard Amazon was going to occupy the empty blue warehouse. Rugeley is a mostly white working-class town of about 22,000 that has never fully recovered from the mine’s closure in 1990. This was its chance  to reinvent itself after decades of  economic decline.

Most people are still glad Amazon has come, believing that any sort of work is better than no work at all, but many have been taken aback by the conditions, and bitterly disappointed by the insecurity of much of the employment on offer.

Like almost everyone without a job in Rugeley, 54-year-old Chris Martin started scouring the internet for application details as soon as he heard Amazon was coming.He was thrilled when he passed the Amazon recruitment process, which includes drug and alcohol tests, and was given a job on the night-shift.

A global employment agency called Randstad, which had handled the recruitment process for Amazon, was also to arrange his shifts, manage him on the warehouse floor and pay him his near-minimum wage.

After three months, if he had performed well, he could apply to be an Amazon employee, though there was no guarantee. Randstad calls this sort of system ‘Inhouse Services’ and describes it as a ‘flexible work solution designed exclusively for each client to optimise the work force and drive cost-effectiveness’.

One of the benefits for clients, it says, is the ‘removal of the administrative burden of recruiting and managing large numbers of staff’.

There was an electric atmosphere in the big blue warehouse that autumn as the operation geared up for the first time. ‘At the start it was buzzing,’ said a member of the Amazon management team who didn’t want to be named. ‘Everyone was just so pleased to have jobs. Everything was new.’

Workers in Amazon’s warehouses — or ‘associates in Amazon’s fulfilment centres’ as the company would put it — are divided into four main groups. There are the people on the ‘receive lines’ and the ‘pack lines’: they either unpack, check and scan every product arriving from around the world, or they pack up customers’ orders at the other end of the process.

Another group stows suppliers’ products somewhere in the warehouse. They put things wherever there’s a free space — in Rugeley, there are inflatable palm trees next to milk frothers and protein powder next to kettles. Only Amazon’s vast computer brain knows where everything is.

The fourth group, the ‘pickers’,  push trolleys around and pick out customers’ orders from the aisles.

Amazon’s software calculates the most efficient walking route to collect all the items to fill a trolley, and then directs the worker from one shelf space to the next via instructions on the screen of the handheld satnav.

Even with these efficient routes, there’s a lot of walking. One of the new Rugeley ‘pickers’ lost almost half a stone in his first few shifts. ‘You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,’ said the Amazon manager. ‘It’s human automation, if you like.’

Continue reading.

I assume that soon the employees will headsets so that the computer can communicate via voice rather than (expensive) hand-carried satnav computers. The employee can wear a GPS button and the headset. The computer knows his or her location and can provide spoken directions. I assume the headset would be able to apply mild electric shocks if the employee is taking too long to do something—just as a friendly reminder to pick up the pace, since detailed performance statistics will automatically be compiled and the worker would not want to be fired without warning: the little electric shocks will be the warnings.

I bet the profits simply soar…

Obviously, companies have no real interest in improving their employees’ lives: they will do anything at all if it improves profits.

Written by Leisureguy

3 July 2013 at 9:51 am

6 Responses

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  1. Not sure about your prognostication. More likely, once the distribution center is proven to be profitable and viable, real robots will replace the humans.



    3 July 2013 at 2:23 pm

  2. I wonder what will happen to the work force as jobs permanently vanish. I don’t see our ruling class as being very worried—indeed, they are busy cutting all forms of aid to the poor. I don’t think they understand what they’re dealing with.



    3 July 2013 at 8:38 pm

  3. Yeah, I think the motto of the rich is, “Let them eat Twinkies”. But they have such a strong hold on the minds of Americans that they’re not worried.

    My son said it all when he was 18 and had just come back from a camping trip with his girlfriend to upstate New York where there is a Six Flags amusement park. He came home and in complete innocence said about the Park, “Americans are a very nice people Dad, but they have an incredible ability to convince themselves that everything they have and do is the biggest and best in the world”. While that tendency to self-delusion is common among all humans, I think Americans in concert with the media and corporations have created a very powerful addiction to this inflated sense of grandeur and invincibility. All one needs to do to stop any progressive social initiative is to yell, “Freedom” and everything gets mired in controversy and stalled forever. Look at gun control…need I say more.



    4 July 2013 at 2:32 am

  4. “Freedom” is clearly failing in fact if not as a slogan. Obama’s vicious war on anyone who reveals government wrong-doing is an example of where we’re headed. Later today a post will appear on how Obama took steps to ensure that a Yemeni journalist who exposed (through the practice of journalism) lies about the US drone program. He was imprisoned for telling the truth, and international outrage put pressure on the Yemeni government to free him, but Obama made a call specifically to ask that the journalist stay in prison.

    Obama has some serious blind spots regarding how a free society works.



    4 July 2013 at 5:19 am

  5. It’s all driven by fear. Fear is the greatest ally of the tyrant.



    4 July 2013 at 11:13 am

  6. I’m afraid you’re right. 🙂



    4 July 2013 at 11:43 am

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