Date
22 September 2019
Deploying AI, as well as GPS, cameras and wearables, Amazon has stepped up its efforts in tracking worker productivity in a precise way, according to reports. Photo: Reuters
Deploying AI, as well as GPS, cameras and wearables, Amazon has stepped up its efforts in tracking worker productivity in a precise way, according to reports. Photo: Reuters

Labor’s gloomy future: Working under AI surveillance

Amazon has said it will pay all of its US employees a minimum of US$15 an hour, more than double the minimum wage of US$7.25.

While it sounds like great news to workers, the truth may be a bit different.

As Amazon’s cloud, advertising and other businesses are all performing well, the internet giant can well afford the wage hike.

But there is no free lunch. It’s been reported that more than 900 employees at Amazon’s warehousing system were fired last year since they failed to meet productivity targets, as recommended by the company’s artificial intelligence (AI) system, The Verge reported, citing an internal document.

Deploying AI, as well as GPS, cameras and wearables, Amazon has stepped up its efforts in tracking worker productivity in a precise way, according to investigation by The Verge.

Amazon is measuring workers’ speed in picking and packing goods, and has recently upped the hourly processing target to 120 pieces from 80, or one for every 30 seconds.

Most workers said such productivity goal is mission impossible. Not a few of them indeed failed to meet the quota.

The system goes so far as to track workers’ “time off task”. If workers take a break from work that is a bit too long, they will be considered not productive enough and the system will issue a recommendation to have them fired.

Some workers have said they try to avoid bathroom breaks so as not to fall foul of the system – by not drinking water, for example.

Apparently, Amazon is demanding more as it offers a better salary. US$15 an hour may look really attractive, but may not really be so if we think about what it takes to meet the tough requirements.

It is said that more and more companies are adopting state-of-the-art technology to track employees’ productivity and make sure they are getting the most out of their staff.

For example, a machine can fully track how many steps a salesperson has walked per day, the number of clients they have visited, etc.

Perhaps in the future, AI will become one big enemy of workers.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 2

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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RT/CG

Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist