The 4 am taxi to the airport is probably the worst part of my job.. it usually marks the start of the daily ritual of airport lines, flight delays and stale air while I cross the continent, never mind the eclectic overnight shift cab driver who is hopped up on caffeine and shooting his mouth off the whole ride in.
This trip was different though, I had the most interesting conversation about the most peculiar thing that has gone overlooked and unscrutinized by society for far too long now.
What is the deal with the automated checkout? When did it become such an integrated part of all of our large retail outlets? How many low skill / entry level jobs have they replaced and what are the consequences of this on society?
We all hate them.. at least I do, they never work exactly as efficiently and quickly as I am sure the inventors of them envisioned. They do one thing very well though, they make tons of money for those who already have tons to spare and they do all of this at a certain human cost. Essentially they have replaced human check out employees; each machine removes the hourly minimum wage fixed operating costs and replaces it with a onetime initial capital investment that pays itself off in a relatively short period of time.
This all sounds pretty cool.. robots and technology changing the way we live our lives and making things “easier” and more “efficient”. But have we really considered the flip side to this trade off? Let’s have a look.
The typical “superstore” seems to have an average of 8 of these machines pumping $$ into their coffers and kicking customers out the door. If I consider my local area here in the Okanagan, I count 7 of these superstores in my immediate area that I might shop at. So we have a total of 56 machines that have replaced the jobs of up to 56 people who would have otherwise been employed.
These sorts of low skill / entry level jobs are actually really critical components to our society, they provide essential sources of income to many of the most vulnerable people who often live on the fringes of society and rely on every single penny of income they receive.. Without any sources of income these members of society are forced to turn to our social system to support themselves and their families, compounding the issue further is the loss of tax contributions and social program contributions that these individuals could otherwise be making if they had a job.
A rough ballpark average welfare check in Canada is around $1500 per month for a single individual. So by my calculations it is costing society around $84000 / month now or a little over one million dollars annually to support these individuals who could otherwise be working.
The population of West Kelowna is 31000 today, so if we say 75% are tax payers then effectively it costs everyone living here $43 per year to enjoy the benefits of the 56 “self-checkouts”. This is just in my small town in the Okanagan!
We haven’t even looked at the other social benefits that these individuals are entitled to, but what is very clear now is that the social costs of replacing humans with machines that pump corporate profits at the expense of the rest of society needs to be considered quickly, especially before we raise the debate on Canadian unemployment numbers etc.
If we can’t even get it right with the easiest ways and means of ensuring easy access to employment for Canadians then how can we ever begin to deal with the rest of the larger issue?