Automation and Technological Change

Members of Unifor and our predecessor unions have been confronting the impacts of technological change and automation in our workplaces for decades. Whether it’s the introduction of robotics on the assembly floor of an auto assembly plant, or the use of “self-driving” trucks to haul material in the oil sands, every sector of our economy has seen some form of disruptive technological change.

In 2018, Unifor released a discussion paper called “The Future of Work is Ours: Confronting risks and seizing opportunities of technological change.”* In that paper, we noted that

For bricks and mortar shops and warehouses, new technologies are being used to automate not only cashiers and tellers but order pickers. Advanced technologies being adopted by firms like Sobeys promise a future where grocery orders are placed on-line, automatically picked and sorted by warehouse robots and then trucked straight to a customer’s house. Years of new tech advances has heightened surveillance concerns for retail workers too, as employers are able to utilize a raft of new data software to monitor employee performance.

The most discussed impact of technological change is widespread job loss, where workers are replaced by robots or other technologies. However, as we explored in our discussion paper, a better way to analyze these impacts is by the kinds of work tasks affected, rather than the jobs themselves. One 2017 study rated industries according to those with “work activities with the highest potential for automation,” and the broader transportation and warehousing industry was tied in second place, along with manufacturing. For both these sectors, it was thought that approximately 61% of work activities had a potential for automation (again, note that this is not the same thing as 61% of the jobs themselves).**

But technological change can create other workplace issues, beyond the potential for the replacement of work activities by automation. The increasing use of automation in warehouses is a direct contributor to work intensification. According to on recent report,

…even though some technologies could alleviate the most arduous tasks of warehouse work (such as heavy lifting), this likely will be coupled with attempts to increase the workload and pace of work, with new methods of monitoring workers.***

In addition, new equipment and technology often require additional training, and we’ve already discussed the problem of inadequate training in many warehouse workplaces. Tech change has also allowed for increased surveillance, as noted above, contributing to the problem of warehouse workers feeling compelled to work fast but not safe.


* “The Future of Work is Ours: Confronting risks and seizing opportunities of technological change.” Unifor Research Department. (July 2018). (

[25] Lamb, C. & Lo, M. “Automation Across the Nation: Understanding the potential impacts of technological trends across Canada.” Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. (2017). (from

[26] Beth Gutelius and Nik Theodore. “The Future of Warehouse Work: Technological Change in the U.S. Logistics Industry.” UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and Working Partnerships USA. (October 2019). (from