Flutterby™! : Online shopping and warehouse workers

Next unread comment / Catchup all unread comments User Account Info | Logout | XML/Pilot/etc versions | Long version (with comments) | Weblog archives | Site Map | | Browse Topics

Online shopping and warehouse workers

2012-11-27 16:16:48.163157+00 by Dan Lyke 1 comments

Dave Alden sent me Mother Jones: I Was A Warehouse Wage Slave. I don't know whether I've read it before (and I'm writing this on a bus so I can't go check if I've linked to it), but if it wasn't this article I know I've seen a similar one. The ensuing email exchange was long enough that I'm going to post it here.

Continued in the comments...

[ related topics: Interactive Drama Politics Writing Work, productivity and environment Macintosh Public Transportation ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2012-11-27 16:17:11.203555+00 by: Dan Lyke

I don't like that online shopping is going to destroy retail (after all among my peers I'm probably the last hold-out against Amazon Prime, and I try Copperfield's and buying dead trees books first when all of my friends have gone primarily electronic), I'm just pessimistic enough to to think that that's the way the market is going.

Just as Wal*Mart keeps growing.

I'm also amazed at how much companies are willing to give to online. I've been told several times recently "yeah, we don't carry that, try online". At least Rex Ace Hardware downtown will order stuff, but they seem to be the last of that breed...

So even if I'm willing to pay for the hand-holding of having someone else do the ordering for me, market forces will mean I'll soon be unable to take that option.

Dave wrote me back to question whether the business model for the shipping facilities is sustainable when the economic recovery begins to reabsorb the more highly educated and motivated workers. I replied that...

I suspect improving automation will cover the shortfall, but I've also got a slightly more dystopian possibility: For the five or ten thousand years of human history that we've been able to piece together economic records for, the vast majority of humans have led a Malthusian existence. Kill people off (plague, famine, war), the standard of living goes up. Have a great harvest, worse, have a great harvest for a few years in a row, and a few years after that you've got most laborers struggling with more mouths to feed.

Things have only been different for the past two centuries or so, and it can be argued even for many currently industrialized countries, such as Germany, that it's been barely a century.

If we consider how quickly we're using our fossil fuel reserves, and what the impact of that use is on the environment, this could just be a local blip.

Chuck Marohn isn't the only person to be suggesting that we're entering a new economic age. I'm not that pessimistic, but if energy prices and climate change continue their trends, and the trend of the upper economic classes having fewer children than the poor increases, we're simply going to have more unskilled labor around.

That article seemed to be describing low-wage or entry level jobs as I've known 'em everywhere. My first job was running a stat camera and slinging boxes in a print shop, and in my youthful arrogance I didn't understand why the older (and union) guys were telling me to slow down, because that set a precedent.

An Ingram or Baker & Taylor warehouse pre-Amazon was probably not very different from the situation described in that article. And people are up in arms about that Bangladesh factory fire, but the Hamlet food processing plant was in North Carolina, and the fire there in 1991 killed 22 people.

I suspect that what's happening is that the economy is forcing educated people who can write well into low-wage jobs, and so we're reading about it now. The other factor is that we're also seeing an anti-undocumented immigration backlash; if you think those warehouse workers have it bad you haven't heard how Central American agricultural workers in U.S. fields live...

And if we automate away those jobs, we're going to end up with that large underclass unemployed.

Like Dave, I'd be happier to live in a world where people have the job flexibility to be at the births of their children. However, I think the only way that's going to happen is if we can get the birth rate way way down. I was at a lecture a few years ago where Mark Tilden, noted robotics researcher, pointed out that robots were developed in expensive facilities with lots of highly trained researchers, while you could build a human in 9 months with unskilled labor.

As long as we've got the glut of underskilled humans, we're either going to have to employ them at closer to the subsistence level, or replace 'em with robots, and neither creates a society that our comfortable middle-class sensibilities is terribly comfortable with.