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Amazon’s system for tracking its warehouse workers can automatically fire them

April 26, 2019
An Amazon worker putting packages on a conveyor belt
An Amazon worker putting packages on a conveyor belt
An Amazon worker putting packages on a conveyor beltAssociated Press

A world where people are monitored and supervised by machines isn’t confined to the realms of sci-fi. It’s here now.

Tough conditions: There have been many reports over recent years about unpleasant conditions workers face at Amazon warehouses. Employees are under pressure to pack hundreds of boxes per hour, and face being fired if they aren’t fast enough.

What’s new: Documents obtained by The Verge show that it’s far more common for people to be fired due to lack of productivity than outsiders realize. Roughly 300 people were fired at a single facility between August 2017 and September 2018 for that reason. And crucially, the documents show that much of the firing process is automated.

The automation aspect: Amazon tracks every individual worker’s productivity, and automatically generates warnings or even terminations without any input from supervisors, the company said. Managers can override the process, but it didn’t say how regularly they do. Amazon says that the termination process can be appealed.

Wider implications: Uber drivers have complained of “management by algorithm.” This is not the first “fired by a computer” case but, as automation marches on, these stories are likely to become a lot more common.

Update: After publishing, an Amazon spokesperson sent us the following statement: "It is absolutely not true that employees are terminated through an automatic system. We would never dismiss an employee without first ensuring that they had received our fullest support, including dedicated coaching to help them improve and additional training. Since we’re a company that continues to grow, it’s our business objective to ensure long-term career development opportunities for our employees. Similar to many companies, we have performance expectations regardless of whether they are corporate or fulfillment center employees. We support people who do not perform to the levels expected of them with dedicated coaching to help them improve and be successful in their career at Amazon.” 

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