UC Berkeley researchers, Beth Gutelius and Nik Theodore, recently published “The Future of Warehouse Work: Technological Change in the U. S. Logistics Industry.” The report examines whether technology and its effects on warehouse work will lead to unemployment and displacement in the foreseeable future, given the intense popular focus on robots and automation.
But instead of causing large-scale job loss, the authors found that over the next decade, new technology will likely have transformative and potentially negative effects on the nature and quality of warehouse work, including the following:
- Work intensification due to “increase in the workload and pace of work, with new methods of monitoring workers,” such as Amazon’s MissionRacer video game, which pits workers against each other to assemble customer orders the fastest.
- The potential introduction of “new health and safety hazards, as well as increased employee turnover due to overwork and burnout.” Little is known about the physical and psychological effects of new technologies, but increases in productivity may test the limits of workers’ bodies, who may opt to leave a job to avoid health issues.
- De-skilling jobs, where traditional roles are broken down into subtasks and technologies are applied, which removes the skills previously required of workers and can lead to lower wages and more job insecurity.
Increased surveillance at work as a result of new technologies for worker oversight, like algorithmic management, wearable devices, and autonomous mobile robots that “allow close tracking of workers’ movements, including walk speed, routes, bottlenecks, and break time” and allow regulation of worker time that’s “granular, scalable, and relentless.”
Since young, male, and Latinx/Black workers are over-represented in warehouse work— workers of color constitute 66% of front-line workers in the warehousing industry but just 37% of the American labor force — the effects of technological change will be borne disproportionately by people of color.
Technology adoption in the warehousing industry is driven by the rise of e-commerce, which has raised consumer expectations for delivery speed, thereby pushing warehouses to experiment with new technologies and work processes in ways that could “de-skill or potentially displace workers, such as automated picking processes, as well as technologies that speed up, control, or streamline human labor, such as electronic productivity monitoring.”
The researchers also found that because so much of the industry is competing on cost, it’s harder to adopt new technologies, and market pressures from Amazon are forcing others to make choices between risky technology investments and workforce experimentation.
The report was commissioned by the UC Berkeley Labor Center and Working Partnerships USA, and is part of a larger multi-industry project supported by the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations.
Click here to read the full report.
About the UC Berkeley Labor Center | The Center for Labor Research and Education (Labor Center) is a public service and outreach program of the UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. Founded in 1964, the Labor Center conducts research and education on issues related to labor and employment. The Labor Center’s curricula and leadership trainings serve to educate a diverse new generation of labor leaders. The Labor Center carries out research on topics such as job quality and workforce development issues, and we work with unions, government, and employers to develop innovative policy perspectives and programs. We also provide an important source of research and information on unions and the changing workforce for students, scholars, policymakers and the public.