Amazon Threatens Future of Service Workers

Jordan Joseph, Contributing Writer

On Monday, Amazon finalized its acquisition of Whole Foods Market. Based on your viewpoint, you are now doing one of two things: you’re either excited about the new possibilities an automated future has to offer, or you’re worried about how service workers will fit into an automated model of business. I am currently doing both.

Amazon’s new ownership of Whole Foods is certainly a step forward for consumer convenience, as well as a bold move toward Amazon’s quest to diversify its business portfolio. Since 1998, Amazon has acquired over 77 different companies through mergers, cash buyouts, and stock.

In the age of a consumerist capitalistic culture, is it better to have one company that does not specialize in a certain field, but provides a multitude of services? Or is it better to have a myriad of small companies that focus on a singular service and perform that service well?

There is no doubt that Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods will benefit consumers’ pockets a great deal, at least temporarily. The prices of basic staples like eggs, avocados, and butter have already been slashed, in some cases up to 43 percent. Although price decreases help the average citizen in the short-term, Amazon’s business strategy could possibly harm the economy in the long run.

The company has already started to automate what most of us consider to be basic human labor through its Amazon Go initiative. In late 2016, Amazon announced a flagship grocery store in Seattle, WA called Amazon Go. As you enter the store, you pass through a futuristic-looking turnstile and are asked to scan a unique QR code on your smartphone in the Amazon Go app. This code links all of your shopping for the day to your Amazon account. The store then utilizes pressure sensors, similar to those a vending machine uses to calculate its stock, to determine which products you pick up after you enter the store.

After you’ve put the products in your shopping bag, you simply walk out of the store, products in hand. This concept is both ingenious and scary.

These Amazon Go stores, as Amazon states on its website, have “No lines, no checkout,” which results in an elimination of almost all human labor, anticipating a prospective future where these stores are completely automated, filled with robot workers to assist buyers with basic queries and to help restock the store. To me, that future is terrifying.

Currently, workers with wages below the generally accepted livable wage of $15 per hour comprise about 43 percent of the American workforce. As of 2015, Whole Foods has 91,000 employees and the majority of those people make less than a livable wage. If Amazon chose to flip the switch and automate its Whole Foods stores, akin to its Amazon Go model, then thousands could lose their jobs. This might inspire other retailers to automate as well. Not too far down the road, we could see automated clothing stores, hardware stores, and even entire automated malls.

Some argue that these sorts of technological advancements may further progress in other fields and that displaced workers will find other jobs in these fields. It’s possible that, in this future, formerly salaried jobs may become minimum-wage jobs. Previously-salaried workers might earn less money and benefits, and the top echelon of specialized workers could earn even more.

The problem with this model is that it’s unsustainable with our current education system and grasp of wages, and the displacement of almost half of America’s workforce is frankly unethical. Furthermore, we cannot expect people to receive college degrees in order to work those minimum wage jobs that were previously salaried. People are working jobs that pay below a livable wage not because they don’t have the requisite skills, but because in America, we inherently undervalue workers. While two workers might work the same number of hours each week and expend the same amount of energy, one inevitably ends up making more money for their trouble. This imbalanced manner in which we view workers, coupled with the lack of publicly funded higher education, makes for a workforce that simply cannot advance to a more economically viable position as technology advances.

Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods foreshadows a potential disaster for the future of the workforce. As large corporations like Amazon continue to expand, they will look to “cut labor costs” — a euphemism for firing people — for the sake of increasing their already high profits. Rather than looking to increase profit, these corporations must prioritize American workers because without our workers, we wouldn’t have livelihoods. As Derek Thompson says in The Atlantic, “the paradox of work is that many people hate their jobs, but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.”