Tech’s threat to low-wage workers

Communities affected by technological advances must reclaim, own and drive them

June 29, 2015 2:00AM ET

A butcher, a baker and a candlestick-maker walk into a restaurant, place an order on a digital screen and pay a virtual cashier. This is not the beginning of a joke, but a reality the restaurant industry is facing that will affect millions in its workforce.

Technology threatens to replace low- and medium-skilled jobs, predominantly held by people of color, in the $709.2 billion restaurant industry. In May, Wendy’s opened a facility near the campus of Ohio State University that will design and test consumer-facing technologies, including a new online ordering app. In 2011, European branches of McDonalds added 7,000 touch-screen cashiers. McDonald’s claims that the few locations in the U.S. with automated cashiers will not affect workforce numbers, but that’s difficult to believe: Computerization and reliance on robotic technology are already changing the industry.

For instance, Amazon recently reported that it intends for robots to eventually replace its warehouse workers. A February report on the future of innovation and employment from Citi GPS and the University of Oxford, meanwhile, states that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk. And in September 2013, Oxford researchers warned that 70 percent of low-skilled and nearly half of medium-skilled U.S. jobs are at risk of being replaced by robots or other technology in the next 10 to 20 years.

And while the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports (PDF) that the restaurant industry is among the top 10 areas projected for job growth between 2012 and 2022, there are real questions about what that workforce will look like over that period of time. 

According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center, more than 11 million people are employed by the industry as managers, servers, cooks, bartenders, hosts, bussers and runners. As of 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than 40 percent of food and drink services workers are people of color, and more than half of them are women. Research finds that people of color and women tend to occupy the industry’s lowest-paying jobs and often work behind the scenes as cashiers, bussers and dishwashers. With the automation of many of these jobs, their livelihoods are at risk. 

Organizing and political action for reform and policy change offer some recourse to address pressing issues, such as institutional racism and low wages. But unless we address the role of new technology, our most vulnerable workers will yet again be left behind. 

In the last two decades, the U.S. has invested significantly in closing technology gaps. Yet advocates of high-speed Internet, for example, continue to draw attention to insufficient access and affordability for communities of color.

We must empower those communities that stand to be most affected by technological advances to reclaim, own and drive them.

And while technology has supported certain advancements, including the social media organizing efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, the loss of jobs to technology will be devastating for the many workers of color who are barely making ends meet. These workers tend to be locked out of higher-wage job markets due to a host of structural reasons that prevent the completion of high school or further education.

One way to counteract this lockout is to build momentum around a minimum wage increase. Successful minimum wage battles in Seattle and Los Angeles have worked in part because of diligent organizing by groups such as the Food Chain Workers Alliance. But as many of these jobs disappear, a new model for organizing will be needed. Along with demands for increased wages, economic justice activists could focus on preserving worker jobs and advocating for a fair balance between labor and automation.

The need for such balance goes beyond the restaurant industry. New technology could also have significant effects on the health industry, by offering more stable and well-paying jobs. Healthcare support jobs, such as diagnostic medical sonographers and physical therapist assistants, are projected to experience much of this growth.

However, the last several years have also seen an increase in the medical field’s use of robots, such as IBM’s Watson, for such support jobs. Even as the overall number of jobs, and therefore, opportunities, increase, workers of color are, again, amongst the most vulnerable. In “Affordable Care Act of 2010: Creating Job Opportunities for Racially and Ethnically Diverse Populations (PDF),” the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that a third of healthcare jobs — particularly on the support-side spectrum — are currently occupied by people of color.

Despite the warning signs, government policymakers and advocates alike have been slow to consider how new technologies will shape the nature of who and what works. For instance, “#BlackWorkersMatter,” a May report released by the Discount Foundation and the Neighborhood Funders Group, names two causes — low wages and joblessness — as drivers of poverty for black workers, but failed to address the technological trends that will exacerbate poverty and diminish opportunity. 

We need a multipronged strategy to fully address this issue. First, we must focus on greater education and conversation about technology trends and their implications for changes in work and life. The government must also regulate the use of robots and simultaneously use technological advances to improve the lives of marginalized communities, such as building roads and transit systems, in smarter, more cost-effective ways. 

More broadly, we must empower those communities that stand to be most affected by technological advances to reclaim, own and drive them — to use them for education, small business development and a host of other services. Because even as it becomes increasingly easy to place an order and pay for it at a restaurant, we mustn’t allow American workers to be left behind.

Simran Noor is the director of policy and strategy at the Center for Social Inclusion. She is a fellow with The OpEd Project’s Greenhouse at the Center for Global Policy Solutions. Her work has been featured on MSNBC and in The Detroit Free Press, The Times-Picayune and City Limits magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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