Amazon, Walmart robots speed up work, increase injuries

By Brian Williams
February 17, 2020

In their dog-eat-dog competitive war against each other, Amazon and its chief retail rival Walmart are stepping up the use of robots to speed up and intensify the exploitation of their workers. This stiffening competition has thrown other major retail outlets into crisis — from Kohl’s to J.C. Penney to bankrupt Sears — all of which face declining sales and store closings.

Amazon now has over 200,000 robots roaming around its warehouses, double the number it had last year and up from a mere 15,000 in 2014. And injury rates in these mammoth Rube-Goldberg-like distribution centers are rising.

A recent study of 28 Amazon warehouses in 16 states by the Center for Investigative Reporting showed that the overall rate of serious injuries was 9.6 per 100 full-time workers in 2018. That’s more than double the warehousing industry average. And, from 2015 to 2017 fatalities in those warehouses jumped from 11 to 22 annually.

To push workers harder, Atlantic magazine reported in December, Amazon bosses combine “cutting-edge technology, unrelenting surveillance, and constant disciplinary write-ups.” One unnamed former top-level operations manager told the magazine that the company “incentivizes you to be a heartless son of a bitch.”

To compete, Walmart and its brick-and-mortar competitors have ramped up the pace as well, leading to 3.5 out of every 100 workers being injured or sickened in 2018 — edging out the rate in basic manufacturing. The most dangerous operations, Finance & Commerce reported, were stores selling home furnishings, building materials and tires, and anything calling itself a supercenter.

At an Amazon warehouse in Connecticut, Amanda Taillon’s job is to enter a cage to pick up toys dropped by 6-foot-tall roving robots. “When you’re out there, and you can hear them moving around, but you can’t see them,” she told The Associated Press, “it’s like, ‘Where are they going to come from?’ It’s a little nerve-racking at first.”

Amazon has a big edge on e-commerce sales, but Walmart has a big edge over everyone in real-live stores, and has been seeking ways to catch up online. In 2018, while Walmart’s online sales grew, it lost about $2 billion. But remember the bottom line — Walmart’s annual revenue is more than twice Amazon’s.

Walmart bosses are also trying to squeeze greater use out of their giant superstores. This includes expanding online grocery pickup and home delivery service, which currently involves more than 1,000 stores.

In January Walmart announced it is testing a giant grocery-picking robot operation called Alphabot. Its 20,000 square-foot facility uses 30 small, cubic robots inside a giant shelving system to pick and pack grocery orders. The bosses claim this automated system will pick 800 products an hour, 10 times faster than a store worker. But of course those humans working in the Alphabot system will have to work faster and faster, at the expense of their safety and health. And, like in Amazon’s warehouses, the bosses use the robots “to visually track the pace” of your work.

Not to be undone, Amazon bosses are creating checkout terminals at their actual stores that link your debt or credit card information to your hand. A similar payment system is being tested at Amazon’s Whole Foods chain, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Through so-called smart voice-recognition programs like Amazon’s Alexa,  orders can be placed for just about everything. There are now more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices around the world, and the number is growing fast, with tens of millions of orders being placed every month.

Place your orders with Alexa …

Just about anyone can place an order. “Move Over, Santa! Kids Are Asking Alexa to Bring Them Presents,” headlined an article in the Dec. 21 Journal. It described numerous examples where young children ordered hundreds of dollars of toys and other goodies through Alexa with their parents not knowing until they showed up at the door.

While Amazon and a variety of competitors are gearing up to begin drone deliveries directly to customers’ doorsteps, FedEx has been testing its own same-day delivery robots in several cities it says can climb up and down stairs.

A swarm of FedEx delivery bots appeared on the streets of Manhattan at the end of November, weaving around cars and pedestrians. City officials, claiming these were unregistered vehicles, ordered them off the streets — for now.

Meanwhile, store vacancies in U.S. shopping malls are at the highest level in decades. Macy’s announced Jan. 8 plans to shut 29 stores and Bed, Bath & Beyond said its sales dropped 9% last quarter, among many of the retail losers who fear the handwriting on the wall.