OPINION: Big Tech and COVID-19: How to humanise the gig economy

by Gavin Mueller | University of Amsterdam
Tuesday, 9 February 2021 16:08 GMT

A gig worker loads groceries into her car at a local grocery store as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in District Heights, Maryland, U.S. October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Can the likes of Amazon, Uber and Instacart engineer solutions that spare workers from bearing the brunt of the pandemic?

By Gavin Mueller, a Lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture and the University of Amsterdam and the author of Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Were Right About Why You Hate Your Job.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought unprecedented changes in the economy. With offices across the world shuttered, millions of people are now dutifully working from their homes and isolating themselves from others to reduce contagion. However, anyone who has followed stay-at-home orders has experienced a deep irony: the benefits of home isolation are dependent upon others who don’t have the option.

Package and food delivery are the most visible reminders that our comfort and safety comes at the expense of poorly paid and precarious workers (now dubbed “essential”), along with workers in kitchens and warehouses who supply them -- jobs with some of the highest risk for contagion.

In a further irony, many of these physically demanding and dangerous jobs fall under the aegis of tech companies: Amazon, Uber, Instacart. Can these innovators engineer solutions that spare workers from bearing the brunt of pandemic risk?

For years, these companies promised automation as the solution to issues with profitability and unhappy workers; now, the pandemic is the latest problem to be solved with robot armies just over the horizon. But there are reasons to be skeptical. Not only have dreams of full automation repeatedly come up short -- Amazon and Tesla abandoned recent efforts at fully automated facilities, and Uber has given up on autonomous cars -- but increased automation in the forms of digital tracking, machine learning, robots, and algorithmic guidance have already succeeded -- in making work more dangerous.

One of the great misrepresentations in visions of the future of work is the belief that Big Tech’s investments in automation, for good or ill, will see machines performing the jobs currently occupied by human beings. Yet for all the hype around artificial intelligence and robots, high-tech companies such as Amazon continue to rely on large numbers of human workers that, while often poorly remunerated, possess manual and mental dexterity that advanced technology struggles to match.

During the pandemic, Amazon increased its human workforce by over 50% in 2020, surpassing a million employees. It tracks every detail of the labour process through its scanners and, increasingly, wearable technology. Workers receive instructions on how fast to walk in warehouses and what order to pick items, and are given continual feedback from managers and machines on their speed, or “rate.” Comprehensive AI-driven surveillance is now being rolled out to Amazon’s burgeoning fleet of sub-contracted delivery drivers in the name of enhanced safety, though sceptical drivers anticipate further pressures to meet strict deadlines.

The result is efficiency -- at the cost of misery. Amazon boasts an injury rate double the national average, according to media reports, with even more injuries at more automated facilities, where machines set the pace. Some workers complain about anxiety and nightmares over “rate”, leaving them likelier to burn out and fuelling turnover in warehouses. One of the rallying cries of Amazon workers advocating for better conditions is “I am not a robot!”

This managerial double pincer movement, of detailed surveillance of the workers tied to increased technological control over the labour process, originates in the experiments in “scientific management” by Frederick W. Taylor over a century ago. While Taylor’s methods often fell short of good science, the broad parameters of his project continue today. Tightly monitored work processes give management insight into where efficiencies can be produced, typically by eliminating downtime and speeding up worker activity. The ultimate goal is that work activities are controlled by management and its technological apparatus, rather than the workers themselves.

Amazon’s approach to employee safety became a public health issue during the pandemic, with numerous outbreaks at its warehouses. In turn, workers have become more outspoken about their conditions, and strikes are on the rise, with notable actions in Minneapolis, Milan, and a series of work stoppages across Germany during Black Friday. Amazon has heavily publicized its reforms, which include small bonuses for frontline workers and heightened cleanliness standards. Meanwhile it positions itself as the solution to vaccine distribution in the U.S. But allowing Amazon a toehold in the health infrastructure means the spread of a work culture that treats workers as disposable cogs.

As the pandemic rages on, it’s hard to imagine a world without online shopping and home delivery apps. But there is no reason that the essential workers who make them possible should risk life and limb. Workers should be able to organize and to have a say in the conditions of their work. Beyond increased pay and benefits, this might mean limiting the spread of technologies of surveillance and automation, and even reducing the backbreaking pace of work. It might even mean returning to the more humane times before one-day delivery became the norm. If we want to face the crisis together and get the pandemic under control, the conveniences of a few cannot come at the expense of the well-being of the many.