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Computers are hiring, rating and firing millions of Amazon workers.

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What does this mean for the future of the workforce?

Meet Stephen Normandin, a casualty of the system

According to an app tracker, Amazon’s Flex app has over 4 million users worldwide, with 2.9 million in the United States. According to one driver, he was dismissed for failing to complete deliveries due to a closed apartment complex. “I’m an old-school guy who gives 110% to every job”, said Stephen Normandin. Amazon claims to be attempting to ensure that its drivers have human oversight.

Amazon’s Flex programme is a huge success, but the advantages greatly outweigh the negative consequences. When Flex drivers believe they have been unfairly deactivated, they have little recourse because they are independent contractors. Drivers can pay $200 to have their disagreement resolved through arbitration, but few do so because they believe it is a waste of time and money. “Executives knew this was going to blow out,” claimed a former engineer who worked on the system’s design.

Amazon’s human-resources function is more automated than most organisations’. Machines can evaluate loan applications and even determine if someone is eligible for parole or should remain in prison. Legislators have looked into the issue, but have been slow to establish regulations to protect the public. The FTC is proposing a law that would oblige it to be more open about how algorithms influence people.

Neddra Lira, of Arlington, Texas, ran into issues too

Amazon Flex is a service that allows drivers to use the Amazon app to deliver packages and groceries. 

Drivers are evaluated based on their dependability and delivery quality, which is mostly determined by whether they arrived on time to pick up parcels. Lira, a mother of three, claims to have delivered approximately 8,000 parcels and to have had an “excellent” performance rating the majority of the time. She claims that there were instances when there were so many drivers lining up outside the delivery station that she had to wait an hour to get her products.

Lira Prakash, an Amazon Flex driver, claims she was deactivated for breaking the company’s terms of service. She described herself as a single mother who had been laid off from her usual work because of the pandemic. “It just wasn’t fair,” Lira explained, “I was on the verge of losing my house,” Amazon says it’s looking into it and will give her access to its Flex programme.

Amazon Flex drivers deliver about 95% of all packages on time and without issues, a person familiar with the program says. The computer engineers who designed Flex worked hard to make it fair and consider such variables as traffic jams and problems accessing apartments. But no algorithm is perfect, and at Amazon’s size, even a small margin of error can have a huge ripple effect. 

The system worked fine for Normandin for years

Normandin, a Seattle delivery driver, has been medically disabled for over a decade owing to a stomach condition and back issues that prevent him from sitting or standing for lengthy periods of time. When he couldn’t reach a customer at an apartment complex with its gates locked, he claims Amazon’s algorithm took notice. The organisation is currently in the process of instructing drivers on how to avoid making the same mistakes.

According to Normandin, he was fired by Amazon when his rating plummeted and he was unable to open an Amazon locker. He sent an email to the employer to reclaim his employment, but it took six weeks for his rating to improve. He claims that “they never rectified it,” and that “it took me six weeks to get my rating back up.” The customer care department of the corporation has been accused of not doing its job correctly.

He claims he was deactivated by the company’s algorithm and appealed to Jeff Bezos, who agreed to look into the matter but refused to reinstate him. He received an email from “Arnab” apologising for the delay and promising an update after a week of waiting. But he didn’t get his job back, so he had to start his own small-engine repair business. 

As bots and automation start to become commonplace, it is imperative that businesses understand how to strike a balance between the human touch and embracing technological advances. If we fail to do so, we risk alienating the workforce of tomorrow and stripping the workplace of any vestiges of the warmth, empathy, and compassion that defines the very essence of humanity.

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