Amazon Employees Hired and Fired by Robots

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Robots at Amazon decide who gets a job. Based on performance algorithms, the robots also decide who gets fired.

Software and algorithms are used to screen, hire, assign and now terminate workers at Amazon. For lower-paid employees, the Robot Overlords Have Arrived.

Millions of low-paid workers’ lives are increasingly governed by software and algorithms. This was starkly illustrated by a report last week that Amazon.com tracks the productivity of its employees and regularly fires those who underperform, 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, as 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 before software was used to fire people. After all, it 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 major discount retailers report if the cashier is scanning items quickly enough to meet a preset goal. In all these cases, results are shared in real time with the employee, and used to determine who is terminated, says Mr. Larkin.

Amazon employees have complained of being monitored continuously—even having bathroom breaks measured—and being held to ever-rising productivity benchmarks. There is no public data to determine if such complaints are more or less common at Amazon than its peers. The company says about 300 employees—roughly 10% of the Baltimore center’s employment level—were terminated for productivity reasons in the year before the law firm’s letter was sent to the NLRB.

Big Brother is Watching

In addition to the government wanting to know everything you do, so do employers and their robots.

Those robots do not care about someone's race. They only care about performance.

If you are supposed to handle x packages per minute, and you underperform, goodbye.

One huge advantage for employers having robots fire people is the process will stop discrimination lawsuits. As a side benefit companies can get rid of higher paid employees who used to make these decisions.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock

Comments (43)
No. 1-17
Webej
Webej

Luckily enough I do not (have to) work at Amazon. Everything I've read about it to date makes me think it's about as close to hell that you can get -- in some ways worse than slavery (slaves in most context could pick their nose without repurcussions). Of course they could -- theoretically -- leave, but in practice nobody would elect to stay there without some form of coercion. If this is supposed to be human progress ....

Carl_R
Carl_R

Same as it ever was. If you do your job, you get raises and promotions. If you slack, you lose your job. In the old days, though, the process was less fair, as a human might show favoritism, seeing the bad in people he didn't like, and the good in people he did like.

Mish raises a good point. This is yet another place where the really big guys can be more efficient that smaller competitors. Favoritism lowers efficiency dramatically, plus it introduces the potential for wrongful discharge lawsuits. That extra efficiency, in turn, translates into Amazon being able to pay higher wages.

Ted R
Ted R

Glad I am self-employed. Only me can fire me. LoL.

nic9075
nic9075

So what, the unemployment rate is 3.8% ,jobs are a dime a dozen. First time claims at record lows as well meaning that fired workers find new jobs making filing for unemployment benefits unnecessary

mark0f0
mark0f0

@nic9075 If the unemployment rate were truly that low (which nobody with a brain actually believes due to the lack of wage inflation, and the mountains of job applications that any decent-quality job receives), there'd be a lot more pushback against such abusive employment tactics.

abend237-04
abend237-04

Then, there are wags like me who view this as a good thing because It turns on the lights and leaves the perennial deadbeat(s) in a department with no place to hide. A competent manager is being paid to deal with problem employees. Failure to do that will guarantee high turnover in the afflicted department as over-burdened fellow employees quietly make their own plans and find work elsewhere.

AWC
AWC

Wow,,,everything is going "Self Driving," even your livelihood. And when you're fired, no one in management is to blame,,,,,because, you see,,,the "Autopilot" did it!

Casual_Observer
Casual_Observer

AI is being widely used already to not hire people. Only a matter of time before it was used to fire people.

Casual_Observer
Casual_Observer

By the way once a lawyer and computer scientist prove that a robot does discriminate and win, Amazon will be SOL. if you dont think a program written by humans discriminates then you must think the robot programmed itself.

JonSellers
JonSellers

USA: the new shithole country. Make sure you don't have a bad day worrying about that cancer treatment your wife is having that day.

KidHorn
KidHorn

Amazon is in a very competitive business. They have to constantly innovate and make employees as productive as possible.

There's nothing less motivating than working hard and having another employee spend the day attending to personal matters.

thimk
thimk

@Casual_Observer - discrimination claims can be very subjective , if a certain category of workers are found to be fired for non performance/not meeting quotas well; lawsuits will ensue. the computers documentation of performance just gives employers a little more leverage.

Maximus_Minimus
Maximus_Minimus

Hidden behind this automation thing, is the fact that Amazon made it a business model to fire and hire some percentage of workers on a regular basis, just to keep everybody insecure enough. This doesn't even makes sense from the point of view of buyers; garbage will get shipped if that ups the score.

Six000mileyear
Six000mileyear

Software is not perfect. AI has so many decisions statements that all of it can't possibly be tested. And then there are situations that the systems engineer never envisioned happening.

ksdude
ksdude

Reminds me of a Jetsons episode where Mr. Spacely bought a robot to be Georges boss. I dont have a link at the moment but if anyone can find it I promise it's hillarious.

thimk
thimk

@ksdude couldnot find jetson episode but R. Sterling had a similar theme in twilight zone episode . :watch the whole episode (on netflix) , see what happens to the boss.