Automation Live Q&A
When Amazon opened the doors of its six-million-square-foot, state-of-the-art, fully automated fulfillment center in Phoenix to the media on Aug. 6, 2034, the star attraction was supposed to be what wasn’t there. Each of these companies categorizes workers like myself as independent contractors, so they don’t have to pay for health care coverage, time off or workers’ compensation insurance. Working in a supposedly automated warehouse is hard, lonely and often unsettling. Because of the employment structure – or, rather, the lack of one – there are no managers or authority figures employed by Amazon on-site. Instead, we are under continuous video surveillance, so we receive guidance from off-site supervisors through a text system on our devices while we work.
Sometimes I’ll see only a few other workers scattered around the site; other times it seems as if there are hundreds. Because Amazon designed the center as a machine-first environment, there is no general air conditioning, even in the summer, when temperatures inside can reach 110 degrees; this might not be so bad for coolant-loaded machines, but it can be downright torturous for humans who are performing manual labor. Another worker was nearly killed when her shift was erroneously logged as completed by the central database and the facility entered into dark mode; she could not see a poorly lit pallet until it ran directly into her at full speed. Whenever the autonomous system detects an issue, it generates a ticket that is sent to one of the contracting companies, which then opens the job for bidding among workers on its network. If there is an accident, Amazon relies on its contract with the on-demand medical services company Ambulatory to send a health professional to the site.
When we have complained to the contracting companies about unsafe conditions, they refer us to Amazon. When we complain to Amazon, they send us back to the contracting companies.
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What’s the manufacturing job killer, automation or trade?
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has said that blaming job losses on automation is a myth, and CNN’s Erin Burnett pressed her to explain why workers in Ohio shouldn’t be worried. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang shot back that the Americans he talks to are very worried about automation. Trade may well have done more than automation to shrink America’s factory workforce. Tracking manufacturing jobs data shows the moment they nosedived in America.
Warren relies on a 2018 study from the Upjohn Institute that looks at the role that trade and automation played in driving down manufacturing employment. Susan Houseman of the Upjohn Institute rebutted the automation theory. As the chart above shows, after the automation surge, manufacturing employment held fairly steady through the 1990s. Yang’s campaign pointed to a 2017 study from Ball State University economists that found that productivity gains accounted for nearly 90% of manufacturing job losses between 2000 and 2010. In their ranking of sectors most likely to be rocked by automation, transportation and storage, followed by manufacturing and construction are at the top, with at least 40% of the jobs in those areas at high risk.
Economist Teresa Fort at Dartmouth College said the relative impacts of trade and automation change from place to place and line of business. Automation does put jobs at risk, but it isn’t divorced from trade itself, and under the right conditions, it can bolster manufacturing jobs, not undercut them. For Fort, the trade versus automation debate is a red herring.