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Airport iPads are a new way to alienate labor

Technology doesn’t make food service more efficient; it just degrades the workers who provide it

January 31, 2016 2:00AM ET

In late 2014, sleeker incarnations of established restaurants began appearing in Newark International Airport’s United Airlines terminal. When I visited at the start of this year, iPads were integrated into nearly every table at every bar and restaurant, including the new (and depressing) CBGB-themed restaurant. At a revamped wine bar, I overheard an irate man mutter, “Did they literally take over every restaurant in the concourse? Well, that sucks.” Servers greeted patrons, helped them navigate the system, and brought them their food, but the usual ordering protocols had disappeared.

OTG Management, the company behind the transformation of Newark’s United terminal, is on the cutting edge of a corporate niche known as farm-to-terminal, where customers use iPads to pay a premium for local, seasonal meals and craft cocktails while trapped at the airport. Similar dining establishments exist in airports in New York, Toronto and Chicago, so the novelty of ordering from smart devices rather than from humans will soon fade.

These establishments reflect nascent changes to the structure of service labor itself. Airports, after all, are microcosms of broader cultural shifts. J.G. Ballard even dubbed them the cities of the future. Companies like OTG and Concessions International, the entity behind a similar iPad ordering system at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, say their methods provide greater consumer choice and maximized pleasure.

But they also represent the growing divide between elite global travelers and the low-wage workers who serve them. In New York in 2009, after OTG began an early version of the iPad system in John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Jet Blue terminal, airport concession workers protested OTG’s failure to sign a labor peace agreement with their union. Casino-like splendor and cutting-edge technology often mask low-tech union busting and old school worker disenfranchisement.

Ordering from iPads theoretically improves the consumer experience by preventing human error, thus reducing wait time. Likewise, it streamlines workers’ tasks and allows staff to cover additional tables. But the transition to the iPad system has not necessarily made ordering or serving easier, even if it alters how patrons view wait staff. IPads appear to reduce servers’ workload, even if this is not the case. A Yelp review of Newark’s Oeno wine bar asked, “Why am I tipping if I have to do all the work?” Indeed, while the default tip setting is 18 percent, customers can easily scroll down and leave a 5 or even 0 percent tip. The iPads themselves are susceptible to glitches, meaning that wait staff often revert to their former order-taking roles.

The system’s underlying mechanisms devalue the emotional labor performed by service workers, who converse with patrons and provide personalized recommendations. Automating the ordering process in the interest of user experience has the unintended consequence of undermining this sort of exchange. Perhaps the harried traveler would rather connect with a bartender instead of staring at a device. Meanwhile, employees are told to focus on “hospitality.” At Newark, I saw one young woman reprimanded by her manager for failing to adequately project friendliness when instructing patrons on how to use their iPads.

The system serves another purpose: Both staff and customers are tracked by OTG’s Flo software. The iPad sits prominently in the center of the table, obstructing dining companions’ faces as they attempt to communicate and distracting them with free games. Like a slot machine, its placement is designed to encourage customers to buy more. Customers do spend more money when using the iPad thanks to the recommendation engine embedded in the software, which uses analytics to predict what else a customer might enjoy given her previous choices. In this way, customers are performing labor while ordering, providing valuable data for the company to mine.

As new technologies impact the structure of work from fast food to transit, formerly disparate low-wage workers must unite.

Flo also collects information about employees’ performance, including how quickly they deliver orders to tables. The system messages the entire staff when orders aren’t picked up in a timely fashion, making it easier for managers to reprimand specific staff members. Similar systems are appearing in other sectors, sometimes using smart devices to track off-duty employees.

According to The Verge, OTG plans to expand the iPad ordering system, allowing customers to order headphones or water bottles in the terminal and have them delivered by airport staff, echoing applications like TaskRabbit. In this context, airport workers may appear undifferentiated and thus replaceable. They are essentially performing the same tasks as Walmart greeters while being tracked like Amazon warehouse workers.

Fast food chains and other restaurants outside the airport have started to implement similar automated ordering systems, expanding the reach of these new technologies. In September 2015, a San Francisco entrepreneur resurrected the automat, a space where cooks clandestinely prepare food before it is automatically delivered. Customers can order and eat without seeing a single worker.

Stephen Hawking recently conjectured that automation will exacerbate economic inequality if the wealth of machine owners is not redistributed after workers lose their jobs. But even if full automation is on the horizon, many workers today face the same issues as in the last century: low wages, unpaid sick days, precarious contracts and few or no benefits.

Even without machines replacing human workers, economic inequality is already rampant. New media researcher Mary Gray argues that “taskified” work, or the fragmenting of jobs on a global scale, is increasingly common. While many airports have added new amenities, airport workers, like those in fast food, retail, transit and numerous other industries, are left behind. The latest gadgets are still entangled with established exploitative labor practices. Skills such as memory, humor, and social acumen are increasingly obviated by speed and efficiency in performing rote, atomized tasks, even if human interaction is still the driving force behind service work.

In the face of partial automation — where technology does little to actually simplify work itself but has the capacity to further alienate employees — what can workers do to fight back? At most airports, concession and maintenance workers aren’t hired by particular franchises, but are subcontracted by multinational corporations. Consequently, separate unions represent different sets of airport workers. These contracts are also precarious because multinationals trade control of retail and restaurant outlets or maintenance groups, meaning that workers’ previous contracts are nullified. For example, at Newark Airport, United officials dropped their unionized janitorial staff in favor of a non-union contractor shortly before the United terminal’s $120 million foodie-focused renovation.

At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, which uses OTG’s iPad system, workers in every part of the airport, from baggage handlers to retail clerks, are collectively fighting for better wages and working conditions. Last June, some airport workers won a $1 wage increase as well as a paid sick day policy. Workers, backed by 15 Now Minnesota and Service Employees International Union Local 26, are continuing to advocate for everyone who works at the airport, regardless of position.

As new technologies impact the structure of work from fast food to transit, formerly disparate low-wage workers must unite. Airports are now laboratories for new forms of exploitation, but they can also offer a platform for new forms of organizing.

Tamara Kneese is a doctoral candidate and Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU.

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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