A cage for workers on wheels. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction. It’s not. In 2016, Amazon filed a patent for a device described as a “system and method for transporting personnel within an active workplace.” It is actually a cage large enough to fit a worker. It’s mounted on top of an automated trolley device. A robotic arm faces outwards.
The worker cage was designed by Amazon’s robotic engineers. It was intended to protect workers in Amazon’s warehouses when they needed to venture into spaces where robot stock-pickers whizz around. Amazon’s worker cage was quietly patented and only came to global attention thanks to the diligent digging of two academics. When the workers’ cage started to appear in newspaper headlines, Amazon executives declared it a “bad idea.”
Amazon may have dropped the plans, but that should not come as a surprise. The company doesn’t need a robotic cage for workers — it already has one of the most all-pervasive control systems in history. In its huge warehouses, workers carry hand-held computers that control their movements. A wristband patented by the company (but which is not yet in use) can direct the movement of workers’ hands using “haptic feedback.” Stock pickers in Amazon warehouses are watched by cameras, and workers have reportedly been reduced to urinating in bottles in order to hit their targets, and they are constantly reminded of their productivity rates. Investigations by journalists have also exposed a worryingly high level of ambulance call-outs to Amazon warehouses in the U.K.
Delivery drivers working on contract for the company are closely tracked and monitored by a system which sets extreme targets that workers must hit. In the U.S., Amazon drivers are suing, claiming that they often work many hours of unpaid overtime. The relentless targets have reportedly led to unsafe driving. Some say that to keep pace they were forced to defecate in bags which they kept in their delivery vans.