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article imageAmazon uses Artificial Intelligence to fire warehouse workers

By Ken Hanly     Apr 27, 2019 in Technology
Amazon's huge warehouses, called fulfillment centers are the engine of the company's retail business as it is where workers track, pack. sort, and shuffle each order before it is sent to the buyer.
Workers pressured to meet targets or be fired
An article in The Verge in April last year noted: "Amazon warehouse workers are forced to pee in bottles or forego their bathroom breaks entirely because fulfillment demands are too high, according to journalist James Bloodworth, who went undercover as an Amazon worker for his book, Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. Targets have reportedly increased exponentially, workers say in a new survey revealed over the weekend, and as result, they feel pressured and stressed to meet the new goals."
Workers are pressured to "make rate" with some packing hundreds of boxes per hour. If they do not work fast enough they lose their jobs. Stacy Mitchell, a staunch Amazon critic, said: "You've always got somebody right behind you who's ready to take your job." Mitchell also said: "One of the things that we hear consistently from workers is that they are treated like robots in effect because they're monitored and supervised by these automated systems."
Amazon's automated system
Amazon uses an automated system that tracks "time off task"(TOT) that tracks the productivity of each worker. The AI system automatically gathers information about the individual worker's productivity and can generate warnings or even firings without input from supervisors according to a letter obtained by Verge. The automatic firing can happen if the worker is pausing or taking breaks too often. However, a supervisor can override the system and there is also an appeal process by which a worker can attempt to get his or her job back.
Union criticizes system
The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) said:"It's one thing for Jeff Bezos and Amazon to use a ruthless business model to destroy jobs for profit, but it is surreal to think that any company could fire their own workers without any human involvement. You’ve always got somebody right behind you who’s ready to take your job.”
Productivity firings at Amazon are common
In a signed letter last year, a lawyer representing Amazon reported that the company fired hundreds of employees at a single warehouse in Baltimore between August of 2017 and September 2018 for failure to meet production quotas. A company spokesperson confirmed that over 300 full-time workers , called associates by the company, were fired for inefficiency during that period. This is a substantial percentage of the workers in the facility who number about 2,500 full-time employees today.
An Amazon spokesperson said: ”Approximately 300 employees turned over in Baltimore related to productivity in this timeframe. In general, the number of employee terminations have decreased over the last two years at this facility as well as across North America.” Amazon gave no details of the present firing rate.
While Amazon touts the benefits of working for the company such as parental leave it seems that the company makes strenuous demands to reach productivity targets or workers will find themselves fired. The appended video discusses the Verge article upon which much of this article is based.
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