If you didn’t think automation could get any more soul-crushing, a Canada-based health-food company is testing out if it can replace cashier workers with foreign call center employees, allowing them to pay them next to nothing in the process.
Video-based cashier systems were spotted by reporters in Canadian Freshii locations, allowing customers to ring up their products with the help of a video call support person on a screen. Unlike self-checkout systems that have become ubiquitous in supermarkets across North America, this system doesn’t even require a person to be standing guard, or even somebody working in the same country. Two of those cashiers were apparently working in a Nicaraguan call center.
The Toronto Star broke the story April 26, citing that three such systems were located in three separate restaurants in Ontario, Canada. The cashier window bears the words “Hi Percy” above the screen showing the call center employee, headphones clamped tight around their ears as they help ring up orders. Freshii, a fast casual restaurant that sells salads, burritos, wraps, yogurt, and the like, reportedly still had employees making the orders, but did not require anyone to man the register.
Two of the virtual employees the Star talked to who said they were from a call center in Nicaragua were making just $3.75 an hour in US dollars. The minimum wage in Ontario is currently $11.70 an hour USD ($15 CAD). The Percy systems have apparently been there since at least November, with others being installed in January.
Freshii operates 343 locations in North America as well as more in Central America, South America and Europe. Gizmodo could not confirm if there were any other stores in the U.S. using the Percy system.
Hi Percy, the company that runs the remote cashier devices, responded to a request for more information by linking to their website and Twitter. The point of the devices, according to the company, is “not about replacing people or jobs. It isn’t about lower pay or working conditions. It’s about a labor shortage across the restaurant industry. Most restaurants in North America offer rewarding jobs that pay above minimum wage.”
On the same Twitter thread, the company added: “Percy’s global workforce currently has employees in several countries, including Canada, and will continue to hire qualified talent in any city, state or country, catering to the market’s needs. We pay all team members above their local minimum wage.”
Freshii reported that its sales figures for the last quarter of 2021 included “same-store sales growth of just over 10%” with 42 new stores opening in Canada and the U.S. last year.
“Through 2021, we believe we successfully navigated the Freshii business through a challenging period for the restaurant industry, and that we succeeded in driving highly significant growth in our ‘beyond-restaurant’ Retail and Ecommerce segment,” Freshii wrote in its yearly financial report.
But despite, or perhaps because of that growth, Freshii has been looking for ways to save money on labor. The company also said in its financial report they were developing/piloting “labor optimization programs” that “have the potential to scale and drive further cost savings for our franchise partners.”
Focusing the work overseas is a well-worn way of reducing cost. Nicaragua minimum wage is established by sector. The $3.75 an hour a call center employee in Nicaragua makes would be a yearly salary of just under $8,000. Glassdoor aggregated info from employees shows that the median Canadian call center agent makes around $34,337, which is still far less than the standard living wage for a place like Ontario, especially in high-cost areas like Toronto.
The company cited pandemic-related challenges to its businesses. The company also said in its yearly report that while as of last December 97% of its businesses were operational, they expect there to be ups and downs in customer traffic and revenue due to the rise and fall of different Covid variants.
Freshii did not return requests for comment about whether they had already implemented or were planning to implement Percy-like systems in U.S. based stores or elsewhere. The Hi Percy automated cashier systems are reportedly outsourced by a third party, but Gizmodo had no means of verifying the name of the company that owns and operates the virtual cashier machines. We will update the post if more information becomes available.
Freshii’s Chief Business Development Officer Paul Hughes told the Toronto Star that the Percy systems were akin to Uber Eats or other tech-based innovations in the restaurant scene “that might make it easier for our customers to order healthy meals and our franchise partners to run more successful restaurants.”
But as companies think of new ways to cut costs while expanding their revenue streams, it’s not likely the last we’ll see of such blatant attempts to cost-save at the expense of people in a global economy.
This article was updated 6 p.m. April 26 to clarify the currencies used for wages referenced in the article.
This article was updated 12:30 p.m. April 27 to include comments from Hi Percy.