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Software and algorithms are used to screen, hire, assign and now terminate workers at Amazon. For lower-paid employees, the Robot Overlords Have Arrived.

Millions of low-paid workers’ lives are increasingly governed by software and algorithms. This was starkly illustrated by a report last week that tracks the productivity of its employees and regularly fires those who underperform, with little human intervention.

“Amazon’s system tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors,” a law firm representing Amazon said in a letter to the National Labor Relations Board, as first reported by technology news site The Verge. Amazon was responding to a complaint that it had fired an employee from a Baltimore fulfillment center for federally protected activity, which could include union organizing. Amazon said the employee was fired for failing to meet productivity targets.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before software was used to fire people. After all, it already screens resumes, recommends job applicants, schedules shifts and assigns projects. In the workplace, “sophisticated technology to track worker productivity on a minute-by-minute or even second-by-second basis is incredibly pervasive,” says Ian Larkin, a business professor at the University of California at Los Angeles specializing in human resources.

Industrial laundry services track how many seconds it takes to press a laundered shirt; on-board computers track truckers’ speed, gear changes and engine revolutions per minute; and checkout terminals at major discount retailers report if the cashier is scanning items quickly enough to meet a preset goal. In all these cases, results are shared in real time with the employee, and used to determine who is terminated, says Mr. Larkin.

Amazon employees have complained of being monitored continuously—even having bathroom breaks measured—and being held to ever-rising productivity benchmarks. There is no public data to determine if such complaints are more or less common at Amazon than its peers. The company says about 300 employees—roughly 10% of the Baltimore center’s employment level—were terminated for productivity reasons in the year before the law firm’s letter was sent to the NLRB.

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Big Brother is Watching

In addition to the government wanting to know everything you do, so do employers and their robots.

Those robots do not care about someone's race. They only care about performance.

If you are supposed to handle x packages per minute, and you underperform, goodbye.

One huge advantage for employers having robots fire people is the process will stop discrimination lawsuits. As a side benefit companies can get rid of higher paid employees who used to make these decisions.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock