Moving To Robot Warehouses On-Demand Labour As Home

Many Australian households warehouses are now ordering groceries online, despite the lockdowns continuing across Australia.

Coles and Woolworths are Australia’s two largest supermarkets. They have been racing to adopt new technology. And change labour arrangements in order to keep up with the egrocery boom.

Both companies investing in smart warehousing systems and distribution systems that can be automate to various degrees. They also make extensive use of app-driven gig. Employees for grocery pick up and delivery through platforms like Uber and Air tasker.

According to my research, a redesign of Australia’s supermarket is underway. Coles and Woolworths will be follow by others. The pair are Australia’s largest private sector employers. And their current moves could accelerate the trend towards precarious and on-demand labour.

Collaboration With Large Tech Companies Warehouses

Coles and Woolworths were overwhelm quickly when the pandemic struck Australia in March 2020. Massive delays caused by unprecedented demand to home deliver caused major delays. Online services temporarily halt for five weeks in order to prioritize shoppers with special needs.

Since then, both supermarket giants have partnered with food delivery platforms in order to solve the last-mile problem of home delivery. This done by a precarious and on-demand network delivery drivers.

Woolworths and Uber have signed a deal to deliver one hour from select Metro stores in Sydney or Melbourne. The agreement was first trialled in 2020. The order will be pick up by Woolworths staff and pack and handed to an Uber driver. These drivers and the on-demand couriers Sherpa or Drive Yello deliver to thousands of Woolworths customers each week.

Coles sees partnerships with the on demand economy as more important than ever before the pandemic. Quietly teamed with Airtasker in 2017, encouraging shoppers to list their grocery lists on auction, and then having gig workers compete for the job.

Also launched a Netflix & Chill essentials range of ice creams, biscuits, and other snacks for Uber Eats delivery in 2019. These partnerships indicate that a strategy to restructure labour relations was in place before the pandemic.

Personal Shopper At The Supermarket Warehouses

A growing number of personal shoppers can found in supermarkets picking up and packing orders for home delivery.

They employed by Coles and Woolworths and move around a multi-tiered station with a scanner gun, measuring scales, touch screen, and weighing scales. Software decides how to pick multiple orders efficiently and guides the worker through the store to determine which items to pick, which bag to place them in and how long it should take.

Another personal shopping performed by plain-clothed gig workers who may use Air tasker to access their mobile phones and not easily distinguished from other shoppers.

The Warehouses Reorganized By Global Tech Companies

Online grocery shopping has accelerate Coles and Woolworths development of fully or semi-automate warehouses that can be coordinate with smart management systems. Both supermarkets have partnered with tech companies around the world to create state-of-the art warehouses worth billions of dollars. Some are expect to open as early as next year.

Coles has partnered with Ocado (a UK software and robotics company), to develop two data-driven customer fulfillment centers in Melbourne and Sydney. They are schedule for opening in 2022. For now, autonomous picking robots will pick up items for human workers, who are more capable of scanning goods and packing them for delivery.

Ocado Smart Platform is the foundation of the system: software, apps and technology that manage online grocery orders.

Woolworths has a different strategy for micro-fulfillment, which entails smaller, more centrally located warehouses that allow faster home delivery.

These hybrid warehouse-supermarket facilities develope by US company Takeoff Technologies. These robots cannibalise retail space to create a small warehouse that automate, with picking robots, vertical racking, and automation. Robots can retrieve items and pack them for delivery, just like in Ocado.

Two of these facilities have already been up and running. The second will open this week on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast

Traditional warehouses closed

These only two examples of the new automated warehouse systems that will replace traditional warehouses. Existing warehouses will be close, resulting in thousands of jobs being lost mostly unionize. It is not yet clear if the retrenched workers would be transferred to automated sites. These sites will still require large numbers to function.

Tom Barnes, sociologist, recently found that unionized warehouse workers who are retrenched by automation are more likely to work in warehousing in less secure and lower-paying jobs. Simply put, unionized jobs that are lost are not retrenched elsewhere.

Groceries Home Delivery The hidden Labour

Online grocery shopping is touted as a way to limit contact between people and reduce the spread of COVID-19. This raises the question of who can stay at home and who must work, possibly putting their lives at risk.

A map of suburbia’s exposure sites shows clear class divisions between those who can work remotely and those who have to order in. As high as 80% of COVID-19 transmissions in Victoria last year were in precarious workplaces.

On-demand labour services need a stratified, unequal labour force. This means that some families outsource domestic labor to others. While this outsourcing can provide an overall benefit, it is dependent on the workers who are denied government or secure work. These people are forced to do work that is too risky for others.

Tomorrow’s Smart Supermarket

Technology and automation advances are not threatening supermarket jobs, but rather changing them. When a growing number of precarious workers is available, it’s unlikely that fantasies of fully automated warehouses or drone deliveries will become reality.

Coles and Woolworths do not simply outsource labour to the on demand economy. They are actually bringing in multiple forms of labor into their distribution networks.

In the complicate labour process of grocery delivery, both precarious and more secure workers (often union members) are involve. Coles and Woolworths are able to shift responsibility and risk onto gig workers, while still maintaining control over the distribution network. This ability to keep control and outsource risk is not a recent high-tech innovation, but an established part of capitalist labour relations.

A reimagining is underway of Australia’s supermarket through partnerships with global tech companies and the on-demand economy. The supermarket, although it may seem banal and unimportant. An important social institution that is constantly changing and being negotiated.

What does this mean for Coles and Woolworths as well as for us all? The trend toward a precarious and on-demand workforce is likely to continue in the absence of government intervention or organised labour resistance.