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Christopher Mims: “Amazon knows how to slow things down to prevent injuries. But maybe I would stop making money.”

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Warehouse workers are injured twice as often as the rest of private industry. Nearly one in 20 Americans working in Amazon’s most common occupation is injured or ill each year. “Amazon knows how to slow things down to avoid injury,” says journalist Christopher Mims. “But maybe it would stop making money,” he adds. There are Amazon warehouses where every single employee is renewed every year. The pressure is enormous.

Mims, 43, from San Antonio, Texas, who writes about technology at the wall street journal, To explain in his book ArrivalToday [Llega hoy], still untranslated into Spanish, how the increasing automation of an industry that is the backbone of globalization is affecting workers. Amazon is one of the greatest expressions of this success: Reducing the time between receiving an order and loading the product onto a truck in a warehouse to just “between 45 minutes and 2 hours” is, according to Mims, “a triumph of computer science, software engineering and artificial intelligence”, making it “one of the most difficult and complicated problems ever solved by mankind”.

Mims’ book follows a USB charger’s journey from a factory in Vietnam to a home in the US upstate via rivers, oceans, unmanned Los Angeles container ports, trucks and, most importantly, Amazon warehouses. It’s a tour of the global logistics industry that moves as many containers each day as can fit in a double-decker train long enough to travel more than half the equator of the earth.

“A place where you’re forced to work at the limit of your capacity with little or no human contact is the very definition of prison labor, it’s very alienating.”

This feat of human ingenuity implies a level of robotization that still coexists with hundreds of thousands of humans. There are details that robots can’t do, and there’s still room for humans: “They’re the glue that unites all these islands of automation,” says Mims EL PAÍS in a video conference interview from Baltimore, where he lives. Being the glue consists of repeating the same process over and over again, namely moving a product between two belts or loading a truck trailer.

These operations are heavily regulated by algorithms and are only performed by humans, since the coordination between our brain and our hand cannot currently be replicated by a robot. The book cites Moravec’s paradox, which states that teaching a computer to move a piece on a chessboard is much more difficult than teaching it to beat us at chess.

This domain of the algorithm in the department stores is one of the principles of Amazon. His goal is to eliminate all disruptions and delays from the work process in the company. Amazon receives 115 orders per second, totaling 10 million per day. In just one second, the company fills as many orders as can fit on a UPS van. Repeating this feat daily and flawlessly is the foundation of Amazon’s success. People in this process are just a piece and their injuries are secondary for now. Robots could almost manage a warehouse, but it would be slower than combining them with humans. Amazon can’t afford it.

“At Amazon the speed it is the purest expression of goals and who is responsible for defining them,” writes Mims.”[Los líderes de Amazon] They don’t seem willing to accept the idea that using ever thinning layers of workers’ cognitive and physical abilities, which deprive them of the opportunity to use their talents, creates new problems,” he adds. Amazon’s algorithm knows how fast each warehouse worker is walking. He gives a prize to the most efficient: more work.

Jobs without an interview

These types of jobs require little training of any kind. Amazon no longer conducts interviews for these stock positions. Hire anyone who walks in and passes a drug test. This process is calleddequalification‘ or ‘disqualify’. “The loss of skills is a big factor because it started with manufacturing but has spread to all kinds of manual work,” says Mims. This has real consequences for society as a whole: “We see a polarization. On the one hand there are people with demanding jobs who are highly qualified and are paid accordingly. On the other hand, they are becoming less skilled in manual jobs that used to require more skill. Whether factories, supermarkets, call centers, customer service or logistics. All of these jobs have become low-skilled. What happened is that the middle class was the majority; now it becomes a barbell-shaped distribution with weights that have more at the ends,” he adds.

Both the injuries, which usually occur after years, and the unequal distribution of income have obvious consequences for social inequality.

Mims defends that perfect business organization in which every little dysfunction or lack of rhythm or competitiveness has been transferred to our lives and leisure. Consumers are part of this sophisticated logistics chain: we consume more because it is easier. “It’s always been like this: automation raises our expectations. Oh, now that you can wash your clothes right away you need a nicer home, or now that food is more available you need to cook like a Michelin-star chef at home,” he adds. “There was a time when people would open canned goods and heat them up and think, oh, that’s an amazing convenience. But people don’t serve themselves and their guests like that anymore. With every new optimization, our expectations of our standard of living increase and we end up having more work instead of more free time,” he says.

The consequence may seem sad, but it applies to both the consumer and the Amazon worker: More technology doesn’t relax your expectations or make your job easier, but rather creates new endeavors or challenges that require more effort. It’s a big paradox: “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s an ideology and that ideologies can be fought with other ideologies,” says Mims. “Part of this rhythm of life comes from our information ecosystem, social networks and the rest of the media. Simply, the pace of life keeps accelerating. Yes, there is a movement where people are asking how can I slow down my life? How can I absorb less information and have more time to myself? But it’s small. So I think that’s the standard human experience.”

A union at Amazon

After a long struggle, an Amazon department store in New York managed to form a workers’ union. In the US, this was big news. The company helps to avoid breaks and conversations between colleagues so that friendships and relationships that end up in associations such as unions are not formed: “We are social animals and it is a necessity for us to have conversations with others, this is how we create meaning and get through the tough stuff,” says Mims. “A place where you’re forced to work at the limit of your capacity with little or no human contact is the very definition of prison work, it’s very alienating. And not to mention the fact that it can lead to higher levels of physical injury from repetitive tasks.”

Mims warns that he has found employees who defend the type of work and benefits they receive in the US, but he believes both are possible: there are happy people and the work is in an Amazon warehouse a difficult challenge. The problem for the company is that as it continues to grow there are places where soon there will be no people willing or able to work in its warehouses: “When I speak to workers, they don’t want to that you stop shopping from them amazon. Not dissatisfied with wages and benefits, they want more autonomy and more control over the pace, hours, and type of work. That’s why they organize themselves in unions,” he says.

“Amazon denies all of this. They say they don’t need unions because they can speak directly to employees and do things to make them happy. But it’s a totally patriarchal, condescending, hierarchical relationship where they say they know what’s best for you. And if you complain, you’re just a complainer if you go to work elsewhere,” says Mims.

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