Your iPhone kills jobs

Smartphone apps have created a new digital underclass of low-paid and highly monitored workers. We're all to blame

Published March 28, 2013 3:47PM (EDT)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a bike messenger in "Premium Rush."   (Columbia Pictures)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a bike messenger in "Premium Rush." (Columbia Pictures)

This is the sixth and final installment in a new series called Working Ahead, which will examine key issues facing the modern American worker, and how we can use our everyday spending habits to help save and create good jobs. The series is brought to you by the AFL-CIO. To read the other stories in this series, click here.

Today, workers trying to eat cheap at lunch order dollar pizza slices. But a few decades ago, they might have dined at an automat --  cafeterias with rows of coin-operated food displays between the dining room and kitchen. Meals were cheap, usually a nickel.

The customers saved, but the workers paid. Behind the glass, cooks and dishwashers often had to work 12-hour shifts at below average wages. Tensions simmered until 1937, when several shops representing anywhere between 500 and more than 1,000 workers lined up behind the AFL-CIO and won a unionization vote.

The automat workers faced a lot of the same challenges as other service workers at the time, but with one major spin: total invisibility. Without a front-of-house, the automat workers became unsympathetic toilers, not unlike the wretched underclass portrayed in Fritz Lang’s film "Metropolis."

The modern equivalent of the automat worker is on your smartphone. While there have been many reports on the often miserable working conditions at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, which manufactures iPhones, it's easy to see the convenient smartphone apps as labor savers for us. But another layer of the smart technology’s impact on labor has rarely been discussed: the way certain applications have revolutionized domestic labor -- especially in the service sector -- and how the workers toiling behind the slick interface of a shopping app are not unlike the hidden short-order cook of an automat.

Can’t live with ‘em                    

I know firsthand how rapid the change has been. Before I went to university I worked for a year running food deliveries for a cafe in New York. It was a grueling job, but working in a Brooklyn neighborhood that caters to many sympathetic service employees, the tips were usually pretty high. Three years later, I came back to the same job with an updated résumé that listed “B.A. in Literary Studies” among my qualifications. Much of the staff, the menu and the management was the same. The main difference was the delivery system, a majority of orders now made through Seamless Web or Grubhub.

The job, which I could once recall nostalgically as akin to the friendly neighborhood milkman (instead doling out cheeseburgers and chicken wings), had now become practically bureaucratic. A page would be faxed to the company with the order. Everything was prepaid, including the tip.

The result was much higher volume, so much that a second delivery rider and a dispatcher were hired for each night shift. Another result: Tips were far down. It was much easier for customers to give the recommended $2 tip on any order with Seamless or a flat 10 percent with Grubhub than to give the same low tip in cash when face-to-face with their delivery person.

Having one’s food delivered as opposed to dining in is already one step removed from human contact. From the other end of the phone line, one cannot see the momentary conditions of the restaurant: how busy the floor, how backed up the kitchen, or how close they are to closing. The Seamless and Grubhub apps wipe out the human contact entirely. Ten orders could (and sometimes did) come in at once, and we could not warn the customer of a long wait. If it’s raining heavily, customers will almost never adjust their tips accordingly — seven times out of 10, they stick with the app-recommended $2.

The same principle applies to retail shops. Apps like Snaptell or Redlaser allow users to take photos of bar codes or covers of books, CDs or video games and display reviews and lowest prices. While this practice might not bother major retailers like Barnes and Noble or Best Buy, who have their own massive online stores, smaller shops are finding the practice to be quite predatory.

Troy Swain, co-owner of the New York-based used bookshop Bookthug Nation, has “several people a day” checking prices of books online to see if they can get it cheaper or make a profit reselling them. Some of them scan bar codes using an app. “We kick people out who do that,” he says. “But lots check prices online.”

But with online and app-based shopping, even big box stores like Wal-Mart look like a mom-and-pop in comparison to the vast, sterile warehouses where Amazon’s products are stocked and distributed. In 2011, a report by a paper in Lehigh, Penn., about the working conditions in Amazon’s nearby distribution center found dangerous work conditions caused by high workloads, dangerously high temperatures and mandatory overtime. As most of the employees at the facility were temps, inability to deal with the workload or complaints to management would simply mean dismissal. Similar conditions have recently been reported at an Amazon distribution center in Bad Hersfeld, Germany, where some 10,000 foreign guest workers are strictly disciplined by a private security team that a public television report revealed as a neo-Nazi organization.

Amazon isn’t alone. Disputes over labor conditions have plagued online-oriented businesses such as FreshDirect, and Target, while better working conditions are reported at Zappos.

Compare this to the recent labor situation at the Strand, New York’s iconic used bookstore, which has been unionized since 1976. When management tried to break the union by implementing a two-tier wage system, the workers pressured management into concessions by handing out comics explaining their situation to customers and holding a public action on May Day of last year. The same sort action is much more difficult for an employee of Amazon or FreshDirect. Like the sandwich makers behind the windows of an automat, their work goes largely unseen.

Can’t live without them

Like teenagers who enjoy the social benefits of a mobile phone but rue their parent’s newfound ability to contact them at any time, workers who perform their tasks on-the-go can now be monitored step-by-step by their managers with the help of smartphone applications.

The frustrations of being on the back end of an app is becoming a universal trend in the service industry. I talked to a dog walker named Rod whose job has recently become integrated with smartphone apps.

“A few months ago the company I work for started using an app that requires walkers to scan a QR code each time they enter and leave a client's apartment. The app basically tracks two things: the duration of the walk (down to the second), and the route. The latter is tracked via your phone's GPS, and is visible to both the employer and the client.”

The new system has some advantages, such as assurance to the employer and client of not being hustled by employees -- and occasionally more time billed per walk. The disadvantages, however, are myriad. Bad reception in buildings, cranky doormen, or faulty keys can set a walker behind on their tightly computerized schedule. Even the dogs are annoyed by this new system, Rod says, “The dog has no idea why I won't just leave it in peace. An extra five minutes means nothing to a dog, but everything to the app.”

I heard one story of a postal employee who had to scan QR codes to prove he was working the right amount of hours in day. He beat the system by taking photos of the bar codes and scanning those on his smartphone, allowing him to complete tasks at his own rapid pace and then do what he wished with the rest of the day. He was fired, the story goes, for "theft of time."

For commercial drivers, like moving-company driver Joseph Frey, the smartphone, which he had to purchase independently, had become a costly but necessary expense. The GPS was indispensable enough, but Joseph recounts how being “the guy with the smartphone” actually extended his hours throughout the night. “I was required to edit the schedule all day on my new work phone. I fielded a lot of calls, late night, like 11 and 12 o'clock, waking me up, from guys who didn't have the Internet and needed their schedule for the next day.”

Another trend in the new smart-workforce are micro-tasking apps like TaskRabbit, GigWalk or NeighborFavor. Users are able to request a variety of odd jobs and errands that can be assigned to a database of mobile workers with flexible schedules.

A short-lived employee of the household cleaning-centered micro-task app called I Am Exec, who wished to remain anonymous, describes how the smartphone became like a boss in her pocket. “Part of the application process involves watching their 'training videos' online where they talk about the different apps you'll use. One is the app they use to have you check in and out of a job. Each morning they email you who you're paired with for the day for cleaning, where you're working, and when your breaks are scheduled.”

The length of cleaning tasks were set over the phone, and if that task ended up taking more time than requested it could be difficult to get extra compensation.  Her entire time at the company, she never met a manager. This was a privilege apparently reserved for employees who move on “to the next phase.”

Even payment was made through an app called Dwolla. Unlike other cleaning agencies, I Am Exec’s employees are trained to refuse tips.

One of the more popular new micro-tasking companies is  eBay’s new Same-Day P2P service, which actually issues a smartphone to new employees. The workers are paid an hourly flat rate as long as they accept a certain number of jobs per week. The phones monitor their location; they need to stay in delivery range and in Manhattan. When a job becomes available, it pops up like a text message. Most of the time, says eBay P2P employee Samuel Littlefield, is spent bumming around and waiting for a gig, often browsing the Internet on his company-issued smartphone.

All in all, he says it’s “like any service industry job. You paste on a plastic smile and do your work as efficiently as possible.”

This type of job is appealing to the same types as freelance writers and graphic designers — young students or recent college grads who either have unpaid jobs as interns or are unemployed, and spend their days bumming around coffee shops trying to figure out where their rent will come from. A recent study by Mohamed Musthag and Deepak Ganesan at the University of Massachusetts  found that the vast majority of micro-taskers — up to 75 percent — are in this age group. These are also the highest-performing micro-taskers, super-agents as Mushtag and Gensan call them, clever at minimizing transportation costs and content with a temporary low-income job and no benefits.

Another important skill these youths do have is tech-savviness. They are much quicker at adapting to new technology than previous generations, and often already have a smart device in order to socialize. In this sense, many young smart-workers may enjoy the convenience and flexible hours of working via smartphone. After all, being offered a moving job at 10:45 a.m. isn’t so different than being texted by a romantic interest saying, “What are you up to?” at 10:45 p.m.. In this sense, the new buzzword FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) refers to partying and employment equally.

Welcoming our new robot overlords?

How can smart-laborers and micro-taskers fight for better working conditions in these rapidly evolving and precarious conditions? Some have suggested Web-oriented protests, like the digital sit-ins to protest tuition hikes in California, or the digital picket line against Huffington Post called by the National Writer’s Guild. While these actions had some, if limited effect, they are nothing compared to the solidarity and obtrusiveness of a physical picket line, something that is not only practically illegal in many places in the United States but now impossible as well for many types of service workers.

The best hope would be a change in the mediums of exchange themselves, something that would take expanded labor consciousness on the part of smartphone shoppers.

Chris Anderson’s popular take on the long-tail theory offers perhaps the best hope for an ethical way forward. Consumers are preferring smaller-batch products from online shops like Etsy or local merchants. North Brooklyn has experienced a boom in artisanal restaurants, craft-beer shops, bakeries and the like.

Some of these locales, such as the collectively run Norbert’s pizza in Bushwick, can appear virtually empty for much of the day, but their Web presence makes them profitable by virtue of deliveries alone. With accessibility to a wider variety of options, consumers often prefer a pizza joint like this, which offers vegan options and a more local flavor than a homogenous giant like the nearby Papa John’s.

Some shopping apps attempt to appeal to this consumer consciousness. Goodguide, for instance, performs a similar function to Snaptell but tells consumers which objects are more ethically produced. Scanning a bottle of Badger SPF 25 Sport Sunscreen, for instance, will give you an overall rating of 7.6/10. The lotion gets a 10 rating for health and a 7.2 for environmental impact, but a 5.2 in the social category. The app explains: “The company’s social policies and practices are average.” The social category considers the condition of workers, the transparency of management, and community connections in its rating process.

As new generations of smart tech, such as Google Glass or Ray Kurzweil’s AI "mind" continue to develop, we can only expect service labor to adapt in ways as unforeseen as these technologies' social impact.

Looking at the larger picture, the future of labor in the first world in general is as uncertain as our perilous economy with its constant crises, crashes and cliffs. With institutionalized organized labor facing rapidly declining numbers since the 1970s, a recent spat of vicious anti-worker legislation, a consumer base that cannot be appealed to in real space, and sometimes not even a flesh-and-blood manager to organize against, tomorrow’s working class will quite literally be left to their own devices.

By A.M. Gittlitz

A.M. Gittlitz is a fiction writer, essayist and bike delivery boy living in Brooklyn, New York. He formerly wrote for Arthur Magazine blog, and a contributer to Death Panel Press and Modulo Magazine.

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