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Can Robots Make Amazon a Better Place to Work?

The online retailer acquires a robot company to make its factories more efficient.

When you place an order on and a package ends up on your doorstep a few days later, you may not consider it what it took to get it there. The logistical systems that enable massive online retail are built on human labor, and an industry of factory "pickers" exists to scoop books, shampoo, and whatever else you order off warehouse shelves and into cardboard parcels.

Journalist Mac McClelland ventured into one of these packing facilities to experience life as a “warehouse wage slave,” and discovered that the experience is physically trying: Impossible quotas and uncomfortable working conditions—not to mention precarious job security and unfair labor practices—leave the pickers who scramble around the warehouses in a position of near-exploitation. But the workers need these jobs to support their families and themselves.

A big part of the problem is worker misclassification: temporary, contract workers treated like full-time employees without receiving the same protections and compensation. Better enforcement of labor laws (and stronger protections for workers) can make a difference.

But another problem for these workers is the nature of the job: The only way to get more productivity out of workers is for them little to run faster, bend over more often, and take fewer breaks. Amazon is becoming increasingly sensitive to these issues (and the costs of employees). Yesterday, it announced the purchase of Kiva Systems, a company that makes warehouse robots already in use at retailers like Zappos and Staples. These robots are a force multiplier for workers, allowing one person to do the work of many without moving around so much. Check out this video:

If Amazon can utilize this technology and, more importantly, improve it by integrating its logistical distribution partners directly with the robot manufacturer, we could see higher-quality jobs for the people who make online retailers work.

But more automation on the floors of these warehouses also means fewer jobs for people, and despite the current conditions, people need jobs. That’s a big problem that can’t be corrected at just one business, but it’s a reminder that a macro-level problem deserves macro-level attention from the government, which has the tools to ramp up demand, re-train more workers, and reward innovation.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user thisisbossi

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