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Rage against the machine: Why Target's gig workers are striking over an algorithm 

by Avi Asher-Schapiro | @AASchapiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 16 October 2020 13:10 GMT

Merchandise baskets are lined up outside a Target department store in Palm Coast, Florida, December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

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The shift to a 'black box' pay algorithm has left gig workers at Shipt, Target's delivery app, in the dark about how their pay is calculated 

By Avi Asher -Schapiro

NEW YORK, Oct 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Workers for a grocery delivery platform owned by U.S. retailer Target plan to strike over the weekend in protest at the company's new payment algorithm.

Shipt used to pay its workers a percentage of each order but the Alabama-based firm introduced a black-box computer program last month which weighs factors including drive times and peak shopping hours.

The company says the algorithm will compensate workers nationwide for the 'effort' put into each delivery.

But workers, many of whom are delivering groceries amid the coronavirus pandemic, fear it could be a pay-cut disguised as a technology upgrade.

What do we know about the algorithm and how it could affect Shipt's 200,000 workers?

What's the bigger picture?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a boon for app-based delivery businesses like UberEats and Instacart.

Americans who can afford it are ordering more products than ever to their homes and workers who lost their jobs amid the economic downturn are flocking to those apps to supplement their income.

But many workers are increasingly dissatisfied with how these companies treat them -- in particular, the opaque way they say their wages are calculated.

"We are marching against an algorithm, and the philosophy behind it," said Willy Solis, a Shipt worker in Dallas Texas who is helping organize the protest and strike, which he said thousands of workers would participate in.

How does the black box work?

Workers used to be paid 7.5% of the value of each grocery order, according to Solis.

Now the algorithm produces a figure based on factors like drive time, distance traveled and the number of items in an order.

Shipt has not made public how these factors are weighted, calling the system "proprietary."

Is the algorithm paying workers more or less?

study released on Thursday by the labor group CoWorker.Org and MIT graduate student Dan Calacci, showed that 41% of Shipt workers had seen their pay decrease by an average of 11% since the new system was rolled out.

Based on a sample of 213 delivery drivers across 140 metro areas, it found that the average pay across the entire workforce did edge up slightly.

When workers complain of lower pay, it's often difficult to know for sure what's going on, said Amos Toh a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who studies artificial intelligence and inequality.

"Is it automation gone wrong, or is it designed to drive down wages?"

Why are workers protesting?

Willy Solis said one reason he started working for Shipt was because its straightforward payment system gave him a predictable stream of income -- something the father of four says was a top priority for him.

Solis would work 50-70 hours a week, and reliably earn $1200, to $1300.

But with the new model, Solis said it’s never clear how much he will earn from any given delivery. 

"This is my business,” he said, “And I need to be able to make informed decisions about my time.”

What does the company say?

The company disputed the notion that workers are worse off under the new algorithm.

“Under this new model, some orders may pay less, some may pay more, but pay overall continues to remain consistent,” Molly Snyder, Ship's chief communications officer wrote in an email.

“[Those striking] are a very small, vocal minority that may disagree."

What next?

It is becoming increasingly common for workers who are paid through an app to not have complete transparency over how their wages are calculated, according to Toh.

Opaque algorithms which keep workers in the dark and sometimes depress their wages are "becoming industry standard," he said.

Solis said thousands of workers across the country would participate in the strikes on October 17 and October 19 -- and he plans to hold an in-person protest at Target’s headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota on October 19.

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(Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro @AASchapiro, Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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