The pandemic transformations of Australia’s economy include many long term trends which have sped up in response to the new environment and many instances where sectors and businesses have taken advantage of the disruption to make wider changes. Both of these factors have been at play in supply chain and delivery services, as retail has shifted to meet the massive expansion of home delivery over the past 18 months.
Recent research by Lauren Kate Kelly, senior policy researcher at the United Workers Union, has explored the way in which supermarket giants have responded to the pandemic through “a reimagining of the Australian supermarket.” This reimagining includes radically expanding upon trends which were in place before 2020, while taking advantage of the shorter term transformations in demand and consumption patterns which have seen massive growth in grocery deliveries.
The first of these changes is the massive expansion of automated labour, with both Coles and Woolworths building new automated and semi-automated warehouses to replace their traditional centres. These trends were in place before 2020, as for example when Woolworths closed its Hume Development Centre in 2019 to shift towards newer, more mechanised distribution centres. Another related change is the increasing use of on-demand delivery services through partnering with gig economy platforms. These arrangements mean that supermarket deliveries are increasingly completed by subcontracted precarious and insecure workforces.
Taken together, these two changes illustrate a response to the pandemic where productivity and profit are linked to reducing the number of human worker variables in the supply chain.
Businesses regularly argue in favour of increasing automation on the basis not only of increasing productivity and profits, but also workplace safety. This has been the case in some instances in industries such as mining and manufacturing, where use of robotics has allowed for safer distance from potentially dangerous machinery. In a pandemic where essential work, including supply chain and delivery work, has been a risk factor for disease transmission, it has been easy to spin automation as a safer option. Woolworths’ chief supply chain officer used this framing in mid-2020 to describe “cutting-edge automation” as “enabling a safer work environment for our teams with less manual handling.” This claim, however, relies on improving workers’ safety by simply reducing the number of them overall.
Automation does not necessarily have to mean replacing workers with technology, unless employers specifically wish to trade productivity gains for workers’ jobs, or are unwilling to unwilling to train and redeploy existing workers. Where employers have been held to account by unions and public scrutiny, there have been some cases where businesses have been more willing to commit to retraining and staff retention. As a recent UWU research report has found, however, workers whose jobs have been replaced or made redundant through automation are more likely to have their working conditions reduced, or to have secure work replaced by insecure or precarious roles, particularly after 2020.
The process of automating work that had previously been undertaken by workers has been key to the history of capitalism, from the Industrial Revolution onwards. It is precisely because it is so entrenched and happens so frequently, however, that there is a risk of allowing it to go unchallenged, or treating its exploitative forms as inevitable. Making automation work for, rather than against, workers was historically a goal of progressive movements, and in this climate of rapid technological change, building pressure to ensure productivity gains are shared, rather than hoarded like other forms of wealth, will be a crucial focus for the future.
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