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Commentary: Technology and the Future of the Food Workforce: An Exploration

Commentary: Technology and the Future of the Food Workforce: An Exploration

by Craig Willingham, Deputy Director, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute

*A condensed version of this commentary was cross-posted on Civil Eats.

In many ways, life in the 21st century has been much the same as it was in the 20th century. People go to work, school and spend time with friends and family in mostly the same ways they did sixty years ago. Moreover, many of the same issues plague society -- income inequality, low-wage work, diet-related and chronic disease, and challenges related to racial and social justice. However, in the last 15 years, a fundamental new force has emerged. Technology has come to play an ever larger role in our public and private lives; modifying every aspect of our daily lives, from how we work, play, shop and learn to who knows what about our personal lives.

Some wild speculation about future technologies, like flying cars, have not come to pass. Instead, we have seen a rise in technologies like cell phones, e-commerce platforms, and online social networks that integrate into our existing social, economic, and political structures in efforts to monetize, mediate, and accelerate everyday tasks related to work, home, and social life. This commentary explores how technology is changing how and what we eat and the means through which food is produced, distributed and sold. A particular focus is what these shifts, catalyzed by developments in technology, mean for the future of workers in the food sector.

Sharing economy apps

One prominent manifestation of how technology has changed our patterns of work is the rise in popularity of software applications or apps that provide new ways for consumers, workers, employers and tech companies to interact. Some of the most popular apps depend on a business model often referred to as a sharing economy or peer economy in which a third party technology is used to bring together customers and workers providing goods and services.[1] Well known examples of these sorts of companies operate in a variety of industries and include Uber (transportation), AirBnB (hospitality), and TaskRabbit (general labor).

In the food sector, these types of companies typically focus on food delivery, connecting workers that deliver food to consumers who order, often through arrangements with venues that sell the food. For instance, DoorDash is a company that offers restaurants access to an online sales platform which allows customers to use the company’s website or app to make purchases for delivery. It charges customers a fee for delivery and uses independent contractors called “dashers” to deliver the food.[2] The benefit of services like this is that they allow restaurants to forgo the costs of maintaining an e-commerce site, which can be costly, and instead focus on producing food while still tapping into the demand for online ordering. Additionally, DoorDash affords restaurants the opportunity to contract-out food delivery, dispensing with the need for restaurants to recruit, supervise and pay deliverers. There are some benefits for workers as well. Because Dashers are contractors, workers who desire flexibility due to school or other commitments can take advantage of the flexibility that comes with on demand work. These sorts of jobs can also provide a great source of additional income for those looking for a flexible second job.

For businesses, the sharing economy model represents an attractive new development to the worker/employer relationship. The delivery angle in particular has proved to be appealing for tech corporations and investors with companies like UberEats, Grubhub, DoorDash, and Seamless attracting millions of customers, thousands of contractors and billions of dollars in investment.[3] But what does all of this mean for the workers delivering the food?

Labor analysts have raised major concerns about the ambiguous status of those making the deliveries. First, nearly all of these services classify their delivery staff as contractors. This means the sorts of protections that come with traditional employment like, maximum and minimum hours, benefits, consistent pay rates, easy access to labor unions, and other job protections do not apply. These jobs end up being less secure and raise uncertainties unique to the sharing economy business model.

These “disruptive” effects of the sharing economy model are exemplified by two traits found in tech companies that use this approach. One involves skirting the same regulations that govern their legacy industries and brick and mortar counterparts. The other consists of public statements to investors, policy makers and the press that evangelize the virtues of self-regulation and nimble employment structures, all in the service of increasing a company’s valuation.[4] 

In 2016 delivery staff in Italy and the UK took to the streets to protest both their treatment and working conditions as contractors for delivery apps Foodora and UberEats.[5],[6]  Fair wages were a particular point of contention in these two actions, an issue across the industry. Furthermore, in 2016 the grocery delivery service Instacart removed the tipping feature from its app and replaced it with a flat fee, which for some contractors meant lower overall income.[7] After getting push-back from workers Instacart relented and replaced the original tip feature. However the new feature was buried so deep within the app’s user interface that workers began distributing flyers to customers to explain how to tip.[8]

This sort of behavior towards workers is not exclusive to the tech industry. However, the issue is compounded by patterns of employment within the sharing economy model and by the ways in which the nature of peer-to-peer technology allows companies to argue that they themselves are only responsible for the tech, not the outcomes of it use. For instance, if there are changes made to an app, like those reflected in the Instacart example, that alters the user’s experience in a way that negatively impacts the workers who use it, the discussion, both before and after changes are made, should be about what decisions support both the tech and the workers, not just the tech. Although, some change may be on the horizon. In April 2017, Dashers won a law suit against DoorDash for the way in which that company classifies its delivery staff. The court found that current designation was not suitable for capturing the role delivery workers play in the company. As part of the settlement, DoorDash has agreed to make changes to how the contractors are classified and treated.[9]

Credit: McKinsey & Company The Changing Market for Food Delivery

Automation

For more than 150 years, automation has been a cause for celebration and concern. The cotton gin, steam engine, and the automobile all had detractors who saw them as grim harbingers of a jobless future.[10] Contrary to predictions, advances in automation have mostly provided economic, productivity and social benefits to both workers and employers.[11] Less clear, however, is who benefits and loses from these “advances” and who makes the decisions on how new technologies are deployed. 

What’s different now? The use of automated tools is rapidly moving into a new phase. In this era, the convergence of computerized artificial intelligence that can independently collect data, assess an environment, and make successful decisions toward a goal is being combined with advances in robotics to create autonomous work systems that can do everything from build a car to perform surgery.[12] True, the jobs of food workers are notoriously hard to automate due to the tactile and situational awareness traits necessary for things like cooking food, harvesting crops, and interacting with customers. However, this is now changing and nowhere is this more apparent than in the fast food sector.

For fast food companies, high level automation of food service tasks has been the Holy Grail for decades.[13] As labor groups around the country have organized under the “Fight for 15” campaign to demand higher wages for low-wage workers, this has taken on a new sense of urgency. Fast food corporations look to reduce the number of workers to offset projected increases in labor costs.[14]

Several pilot projects are paving the way for machines to begin replacing fast food workers. They represent innovations on two different fronts, preparing and selling food. First, three companies, Zume Pizza, Miso Robotics, and Momentum Machines are tackling the production side challenges. Each has developed a unique and highly-mechanized solution to address the needs of automated food production. Partly funded by the fast food chain Caliburger, Miso Robotics is set to launch its robotic kitchen assistant “Flippy” at 50 Caliburger locations by 2019, decreasing the number of workers necessary to produce meals.[15] Similarly, Momentum machines is launching its flagship restaurant in the San Francisco bay area in 2017 with a signature robotics system that will churn out 400 hamburgers an hour.[16] Lastly, Zume Pizza is looking to remove workers completely from the production side by using autonomous systems to make the pizza and specialized trucks to cook the pizza on its way to being delivered.[17]

A robot named Flippy will prepare burgers at a fast food chain by 2019

These projects represent provocative, yet tentative steps towards replacing fast food workers with robots. However, large-scale automation efforts to sell fast food are also underway. McDonald’s and Wendy’s are installing self-serve kiosks at more than 5000 locations across the country.[18] While McDonald’s has said that it has no current plans to fully replace workers, Wendy’s has made no such pledge. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the lure of higher profits doesn’t eventually become a factor for both companies when deciding how much to expand the use of automated systems. So far, there has been no collective response from the fast food industry as to what these changes mean for front line workers. Similarly, labor groups have continued to focus their efforts on “Fight for 15” and have largely set aside concerns about automation. It’s likely that both sides are thinking through what the best way forward is. However, the fast pace of technology development may force the issue sooner rather than later.

Automated systems have also begun to affect food distribution and delivery methods. Tech companies are using their relationships with contract workers to collect huge amounts of data, which is helping them develop automated delivery systems designed to transport goods with little or no human involvement. This is the case with Uber’s self-driving truck division Otto which is well on its way to developing an autonomous driving systems.[19] Since the fall of 2016 Otto has run pilot deliveries of Budweiser beer across Colorado and its parent company has stepped up recruitment for drivers for its UberFreight division, a sharing economy take on long-haul truck driving. The move is looked at as a way to increase the amount of data Uber collects from drivers in order to help build out Otto’s autonomous driving network.[20]

The rise of automated trucking represents a significant threat to food distribution jobs in the United States; "truck driver" is one of the most common jobs in the country, and many foods and beverage products are shipped via long-haul truck.[21],[22]  Additionally, automated delivery has launched in the restaurant sector. DoorDash and Yelp’s Eat24 service are working with two robotics companies, Starship Technologies and Marble respectively, to completely remove delivery staff from the delivery process.[23] These multi-wheeled robotic systems are currently being tested in San Francisco and London. Should this pilot succeed, it could mean the beginning of the end for some delivery workers.

Credit: NPR.org

Credit: NPR.org

Lastly, the supermarket industry is also undergoing transformations driven by advances in automated systems, first developed by Walmart at the end of the last century. Notoriously an industry with very small profit margins, there have been numerous efforts over the years to build in efficiencies, particularly when it comes to supply chains.[24] Recently Rick Cohen, owner of the largest grocery distributor in the country C&S Wholesale Grocers, acquired robotics company Symbotic. C&S is working with Symbotic to automate dozens food distribution centers across the country, reducing the need for many of the current warehouse positions.[25] This effort has been met with alarm from labor groups like the International Brotherhood of Teamsters which represents some 122,000 grocery warehouse workers.[25] 

Meanwhile the efforts to increase automation moves forward with Symbotic offering its services to an increasingly impressive list of clients including Target, which will open a highly automated distribution center in the near future using Symbotic robots.[26] Furthermore, automation developments on the grocery retail front also present an uncertain future for food workers. Amazon is piloting a new store model called Amazon Go, which has billed itself as the first grocery store completely without cashiers.[27] With its recent purchase of Whole Foods Market, it’s hard to imagine that Amazon won’t use those stores as a laboratory for testing out similar ways to reduce labor cost and there is already some indication that this will be the case.[28]

Meal Kit Delivery Services

A key selling point for many of today’s most popular technologies is their ability to save time and provide convenience. Online meal kit delivery services, pioneered by Blue Apron, offer busy customers the opportunity to create elaborate meals at home by providing prep-ready ingredients along with easy to follow cooking instructions and have been wildly popular in areas across the United States.[29] Additionally, these services can have a positive effect on the sales of regional agricultural products, often securing harvests from farmers well in advance and providing them with additional revenue streams.[30]

However, the demands of profitably producing high quality meal packages have at times created a troubling work environment for Blue Apron’s staff. A 2016 inspection of a California food packaging facility turned up five worker safety violations, one of which could potentially have resulted in “death or serious physical harm.”[31] Moreover, during a 38 months period after its Richmond California warehouse opened it received nine violations and proposed penalties totaling $11,695 for unsafe conditions and there were four arrests for violence on the premises, or threats of it.[32] The company has made efforts to address these issues and must figure out how to create a better work environment for the long-term health of its employees. Unfortunately, conditions at Blue Apron’s facilities resonates all too well with many of the challenges food workers face when working with tech companies. The industry’s obsession with company valuation and its unbalanced focus on product over people can end up making workers collateral damage in the race to capitalize on the market.[33]

How governments and corporations can prepare and protect workers from the harmful impact of technological change

We can only speculate how exactly technology will shape the fate of food workers in the near term. However, based on some of the issues outlined here, some indications of what we might expect are apparent. In many ways, food workers are the proverbial canary in the coal mine, facing issues that are likely to affect dozens of industries and challenges that will affect workers in many sectors in the next 10 to 15 years. Several solutions have been proposed to mitigate the harmful impact of the developments in technology described here. Here are five ways that governments and corporations might be able to prepare and protect workers in response to possible changes in the labor market brought on by advances in technology. 

1.       Corporate Profit Sharing: Corporations that use the sharing economy model could go a long way towards addressing some of the built-in inequities of the structure by allowing contractors to participate in profit sharing. Currently, contractors are at the mercy of companies when it comes to compensation and have no leverage when fees are lowered or there are changes to the terms of agreement.[34] Profit sharing would give contractors another way to generate income and incentivize workers to maintain and cultivate relationships with tech companies and help address concerns about predatory practices.

2.       Universal Basic Income: One of the most popular ideas right now for addressing labor fluctuations brought about by changes in technology is the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI). A government participating in a UBI scheme would supply unconditional monthly cash payments from the state budget to all of its citizens.[35] The concept has garnered support from across the political spectrum and is seen as one of the most direct ways to address the sort of structural unemployment crisis that could be brought on by high levels automation through redistributing some of the gains generated by the shift. [36],[37]

3.       Shorter Work Weeks: Historically, the work week has decreased as a byproduct of increased worker protections and automation, down from as much as 66 hour a week in 1850.[38] With controls in place to adequately tax gains in productivity brought on by increased use of robotic systems, there may be significant opportunities to reduce the number of hours employees give over to work each week. Additionally, a rise in pay for sharing economy jobs could also result in a shorter work week and greater job flexibility.

4.       Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT): These are programs that transfer cash, typically to low-income households, on the condition that they make preset investments in the human capital of their children.[39] A rethinking of these sorts of programs could see funds used to provide financial support to jobless workers in community activities, volunteerism or support efforts to retrain workers for higher skilled, technical jobs where possible.[40]

5.       More worker protection: “Who benefits?” from developments in technology is ultimately a political question. Since the 1970s, workers and labor organizations in the United States have lost political power to corporations and elites. Restoring basic worker protections, enforcing worker safety and wage regulation and anti-trust laws, and leveling the political playing field to limit the influence of corporations and the wealthy would help our nation to make more democratic and equitable decisions about who benefits from new technologies. 

None of these options is perfect and most come with major downsides.[41] Even so, it’s important to begin considering what can be done to mitigate potentially major disruptions to the labor market. One thing is clear: Technology will continue to play a larger role in the lives of food and other workers in the next decade. If we review the rapid, pervasive, and unanticipated impact of the technologies like cell phones, e-commerce, and online social networks, we can see how difficult it will be to predict full impact of technological change. Whatever changes unfold we will need policy makers, business leaders, workers and a food movement that understand the impact of these disruptions and can work together to fairly allocate the benefits and equitably minimize the harms of these new technologies.

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