Amazon and the phrase “questionable labour practices” have become almost synonymous. In an increasingly automated world, the relationship between robots and human labour is being scrutinized. Alessandro Delfanti, an associate professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), recently published his latest book titled The Warehouse: Workers and Robots at Amazon. The book paints a picture of how Amazon utilizes technology to surveil its employees and extract as much labour from them as possible.
“[It’s] is based on my research of Amazon workers internationally, through interviews, and a study of the technological infrastructures that Amazon deploys in its warehouses to organize inventory and labour,” says Professor Delfanti, who joined UTM’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology (ICCIT) seven years ago.
Professor Delfanti has always been interested in the politics of technology and its relationship with work. The inspiration for his book came readily, as Amazon has been a presence in his life for quite some time. His hometown in Italy hosts the oldest and largest Amazon warehouse in the country. Some of his friends and childhood classmates have been employed there. “For years I’ve been exposed to some of the issues going on in those places, especially in political terms,” he notes. This presence did not go away when he arrived in the Peel Region, which is home to three fulfillment warehouse centres.
While many believe that companies like Amazon have nefarious plans to completely replace human labour with machines, Professor Delfanti argues that this is not likely. “They are renewing logics and practices that were typical of industrial capitalism,” he explains. “[This creates] a new, digitized, automated version.” Instead of replacing human labour, these technologies squeeze as much labour out of workers as they can—often in a way that impacts their safety and well-being. “If you look into Amazon’s plans for future innovation, they always tend to include humans,” he adds.
As one of the most surveilled workplaces in the world, Amazon uses technology to monitor its employees’ whereabouts and productivity. Their warehouses feature cameras and body scanners to ensure that employees are not stealing. In fact, Professor Delfanti states that Amazon is almost used as a testing ground for surveillance practices in the workplace, which could potentially be sold and used by other companies.
In the future, Amazon may reduce the number of employees working in the warehouse, instead of completely replacing them with an automated labour force. “Algorithms are already used by [the company] to determine the division of labour between robots and humans. In the future, humans may be called upon when robots cannot perform a certain task, or to assist or train the robots,” explains Professor Delfanti. However, this news is not entirely optimistic. According to him, this technology may be used to further control Amazon workers.
During his research, Professor Delfanti interviewed warehouse workers in Canada, the U.S., Italy, and other European countries with the help of unions and workers keen to get the word out. However, finding employees who were willing to talk was not always an easy task. “It was challenging to gain their trust. They’re overworked,” he recalls. “After coming from a long workday, not many people are willing to talk about [it] for hours.”
On top of this, many employees were worried about repercussions such as termination of employment from Amazon. Only one employee out of five or ten was willing to be interviewed according to Professor Delfanti. He was careful to meet in neutral places (such as cafés) that were far from any warehouses.
Amazon itself was, somewhat cautiously, more open than usual. “They’ve had experiences with journalists going undercover and exposing their practices,” adds Professor Delfanti. “They kept an eye on us, but they were aware of what we were doing.” In one instance, he was even given a warehouse tour.
Amazon’s treatment of its employees has been in the public eye for a while. Many campaigns, petitions, and online forums call for a boycott of their services. However, when asked about his thoughts on calls for boycotts, Professor Delfanti says he’s unsure if that’s a truly effective solution. “Unless it’s widespread and very well-organized, a boycott doesn’t really hurt the company. Especially not one as large as Amazon.”
He adds that even workers have not gone down this route. “[Boycotts] are sort of an ambivalent weapon. It is more effective to have solidarity with workers, and help them, especially with things like unionization efforts,” he states. Recently, many warehouses worldwide have been pushing for unionization, with varying degrees of success.
Professor Delfanti explains that, instead of focusing on boycott efforts, it’s far more important for consumers to be informed about what’s going on. For example, paying attention to the unionization efforts in the Peel Region and the demands of Amazon workers. Rather than placing online orders, consumers should shop locally.
“In the modern world we’re used to ordering something online and having it within 24 hours. I don’t know how sustainable that is in terms of the labour it generates, as well as environmentally. This will have to change if we want to get serious about climate change,” says Professor Delfanti. “I don’t have many hopes that Amazon will change for the better unless there are some major political transformations. [Groups] have taken the fight transnational, and they’re getting a big response.”
Amazon Workers for Climate Justice is one such group that is made up of Amazon employees who wish to put pressure on the company to improve their practices. Professor Delfanti explains that if we as consumers want to make a difference, it is important to support groups like these.
Professor Delfanti does his best to support local businesses whenever he can. When asked how he will be doing his holiday shopping this year, he says “I still prefer to shop in-person, despite the convenience of shopping online.”