Amazon turns to robot workers to bolster Black Friday employees

Robot kicking human in the caboose

Naysayers worried about robot workers replacing jobs in companies like Amazon may actually be right.

As per usual, Amazon is hiring extra staff for the holiday period to handle increased demand from Black Friday and Christmas sales. These jobs are predominantly in Amazon's warehouses, given the dystopian name "fulfillment centres". However, even though Amazon is hiring 100,000 temporary workers, this is down from the 120,000 workers hired for the 2017 and 2016 holiday periods, and equal to those hired in 2015 before the online sales season really took off.

This reduction marks the first time in Amazon's history that it has scaled down its holiday hiring numbers. Many have pointed to the company's growing reliance on automated workers as the reason for this.

In 2012 Amazon bought Kiva Systems, a USA-based robotics company. Kiva Systems' robots process the sorting, packing and shipping of Amazon packages at least four times faster than a human could and were rolled out to Amazon warehouses in 2014. Analysts predicted Kiva Systems robots save Amazon as much as $2.5 billion (2bn) compared to paying wages to human workers.

This reliance on non-human workers may sound like a good thing due to Amazon's track record of mistreating its staff, from making drivers work illegal hours to forcing warehouse workers to walk over 10 miles each day. Most recently, Amazon's factories in China have been under investigation for mistreating workers.

However, many large companies have been trending towards automating as many processes as possible. Supermarket chain Walmart has added robots to the aisles of some of its US stores and Apple supplier FoxConn laid off human workers in favour of automated processes.

Amazon denies any possibility of human layoffs, with a spokesperson referencing the number of full-time jobs the company is constantly creating. Last month Amazon revealed it would be bringing 1,000 new jobs to various UK centres, including Edinburgh and Cambridge. However, an increase of 1,000 jobs does little to mitigate the potential massive job loss automated labour will present.

It remains to be seen if this trend towards robot workers will pose a large problem to warehouse workers for companies like Amazon, or if it will simply be limited to seasonal work.