‘Automated’ sweated labour

This piece by Sonia Sodha (Worry less about robots and more about sweatshops) in the Grauniad, which accompanies an episode of the Radio 4 programme Analysis (Who Speaks for the Workers?), is well worth checking out. It makes a case that seems to be increasing in consensus – that ‘automation’ in particular parts of industry will not mean ‘robots’ but pushing workers to become more ‘robotic’. This is an interesting foil to the ‘automated luxury communism’ schtick and the wider imaginings of automation. If you stop to think about wider and longer term trends in labour practices, it also feels depressingly possible…

This is the underbelly of our labour market: illegal exploitation, plain and simple. But there are other legal means employers can use to sweat their labour. In a sector such as logistics, smart technology is not being used to replace workers altogether, but to make them increasingly resemble robots. Parcel delivery and warehouse workers find themselves directed along exact routes in the name of efficiency. Wrist-based devices allow bosses to track their every move, right down to how long they take for lavatory breaks and the speed with which they move a particular piece of stock in a warehouse or from the delivery van to someone’s front door.

This hints at a chilling future: not one where robots have replaced us altogether, but where algorithms have completely eroded worker autonomy, undermining the dignity of work and the sense of pride that people can take in a job well done.

This fits well with complementary arguments about ‘heteromation‘ and other more nuanced understandings of what’s followed or extended what we used to call ‘post-Fordism’…

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