Retail giants are increasingly turning over jobs and tasks performed in the past by human workers to a growing workforce of robots. A new report on this automation of jobs by Walmart says it’s led to a greater sense of tedium and unease among some human employees, even as the company insists that its robots are meant to benefit them.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that while some Walmart employees working at the roughly 1,500 locations where these robots have been introduced described them as helpful, others claimed the robots made their jobs less unenjoyable and made them feel undervalued by the company. These employees described to the paper an increasingly monotonous work environment in which they are effectively tending to and training the robots, and felt limited by the work of performing tasks delegated by machines.
Walmart claims that its robots—whose tasks include everything from cleaning floors to scanning shelves and sorting inventory—are meant to “minimize the time an associate spends on the more mundane and repetitive tasks” and allow its workers “more of an opportunity to do what they’re uniquely qualified for: serve customers face-to-face on the sales floor.” Reached by Gizmodo by phone, a Walmart spokesperson insisted that the robots give employees opportunities to move away from “extremely mundane and repetitive” tasks like sitting atop a floor scrubber for two hours a day or scanning thousands of inventory labels manually.
The spokesperson argued that, in the case of Walmart’s Auto-C floor scrubber, for example, these machines roam the wide aisles in stores but cannot clean spaces like restrooms, areas with clothing racks, checkout lanes, or other tight spaces that can’t be reached by the robots. Tasks in these areas still need to be performed by human workers, and eliminating some of that cleaning, scanning, or sorting work could allow them to perform other necessary tasks or tend to customers, the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson further claimed that as Walmart rolls out these technologies out to its mammoth stores, “the feedback we’re receiving from associates and customers alike is positive.” According to the Post, however, even customers are having trouble adjusting to the robot workers:
Some shoppers have been spooked, for example, by the Auto-S scanner, which stands six feet tall and quietly creeps down the aisles, searching for out-of-place items by sweeping shelves with a beam of light. Other shoppers, store workers said, have made a game of kicking the things.
The Post’s report about automation creating an increasingly monotonous, confined, and mind-numbing work environment for Walmart workers immediately calls to mind similar reports about the company’s retail rival Amazon, which has also been shifting to free labor performed by robots for years now. Indeed, Amazon claims that its ultimate goal of fully autonomous warehouses is about 10 years away from becoming a reality (even if we still have reason to be skeptical of that claim). This shift toward greater automation has also reportedly created problems for some Amazon warehouse workers, who claim their work is increasingly tedious and less engaging than it was before robots began performing parts of their jobs.
But like Amazon—which claims its gamification of labor comes with the best of intentions—it’s difficult to take seriously Walmart’s claims of prioritizing employee happiness when it’s essentially requiring its human workers train, as the Post put it, “their possible replacements.”