The thing about ruthless global capitalism is that people generally pay little heed to its ill effects unless they have to actually watch the sausage get made. That’s why the tags on fast-fashion clothing don’t read “Lovingly made by someone who slept on the factory floor” or “sewed by hand for less than a dollar an hour.” We want cheap clothes, on-demand tech support and customer service, and low-priced electronics, toys and other non-essential items; we don’t want to see why and how those goods and services were made so accessible and affordable.
Perhaps Freshii, the Canadian restaurant chain that recently adopted a “virtual cashier” system, should have factored in our desires to be protected from this cognitive dissonance before deciding to outsource some of its cashier jobs to people living on the other side of the world. As first reported by the Toronto Star, select Freshii restaurants have adopted a system operated by a third-party company called Percy, by which customers use a live video-calling service at the register to connect to a person in Nicaragua, who takes their orders and processes payment. These cashiers, who are technically employed by Percy, are paid US$3.75 per hour, which is about a third of what someone working the same job in Ontario would earn.
The public’s response to Freshii’s pivot to Percy has been swift and ruthless. Plenty of people have taken to social media to proclaim that they will never step foot in a Freshii again for what they see as exploitation of foreign workers. Bea Bruske, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said she was “disgusted a company like Freshii would take this approach,” adding: “We need jobs that pay taxes in Canada and that help boost our economic activity.” Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, called the move “outrageous”: “I expect better from a Toronto-based company and know customers will vote with their feet,” he said.
Surely the response would not have been so visceral had Freshii simply done what so many other fast-food restaurants and other businesses have done: eliminated human cashiers altogether. But Freshii seemingly wanted to maintain the personal aspect of placing an order with a real person, while adopting a measure that would significantly cut down on labour costs. And the funny thing now is that should Freshii choose to go fully automated in response to the backlash, the Nicaraguans earning well above a living wage by their country’s standards through Percy will be out of work.
That raises a thorny ethical question: is it better to replace a Canadian worker with a foreign worker who will earn a way better salary than he or she might have otherwise, or replace both with a robot, who doesn’t have a family to feed?
The only incorrect answer – though it is one that many have resorted to, in their protest over Percy – is that Freshii should do neither, and instead pay a Canadian a living wage. Arguing that is akin to fighting a clock for continuing to tick: automation is here, and there’s no going backward.
In his book, The Robots Are Coming: The Future of Jobs in the Age of Automation, Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer describes how the nature of work is irrevocably changing, and how technology will affect what it means to work in sectors ranging from banking and health care to retail and hospitality. Mr. Oppenheimer describes how, during his time in Japan, he’d eaten at sushi restaurants that were totally run by robots – there were no waiters, hosts or chefs – and suggests that could soon become the norm throughout Europe and North America. His remedy is a universal basic income tied to social work, where those who receive a basic income volunteer at nursing homes, work with children or provide some other social good.
Freshii’s critical error in adopting Percy was its failure to anticipate just how much people would be offended by actually seeing what exporting labour to lower-paid foreign workers looks like. After all, Canadians seem to tolerate bringing in temporary foreign workers to work in our agricultural sector each year, even though the process theoretically takes jobs away from Canadians (in reality, Canadians don’t want those jobs) and many workers are forced to live in cramped, unsanitary conditions. But we don’t see the faces of those workers when we go to the grocery store. Nor do we see the employees earning a pittance by our standards when we call our internet providers to complain about our bills.
Yes, Percy has provoked an extraordinary reaction – but only because we’re actually seeing the confluence of capitalism, automation and globalization in action, before our eyes. And no one wants that when they’re just trying to enjoy a burrito bowl.
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