“People go to a bar to vent, to have experiences, to ask questions,” Paganelli said. “How are you going to do that with a robot?”
Worker demands also included implementing new technologies they say will increase safety, such as GPS-enabled panic buttons to combat harassment and motorized cleaning carts, which are less physically stressful for maids. Unlike employees at fast-food chains and coffee shops, which are both undergoing automation pains of their own, many hotel workers see a lifetime career in their industry. Paganelli, for example, said he hopes to retire from his job at Marriott. That means he can’t afford to ignore changes coming five or even 10 years down the line.
Read: Low-wage workers aren’t getting justice for sexual harassment
Rather than fully replacing human workers with The Jetsons–style robots, the service industry is more likely to adopt a system of partial automation. Simple tasks will be automated so that workers’ hours can be cut down, or so that a two-person job, say janitorial services or manning the front desk overnight, can be assigned to one person aided by a robot.
Such tech-enabled labor reshuffling may appear to “save” time for the businesses that engage in it. But that time is also taken away from workers in the form of hours cut. These changes are difficult to quantify at a large scale because they may not be reflected in employment numbers or even in hourly wages, but in the hours each employee works weekly. “Robots aren’t taking your job” Brennan Hoban of the Brookings Institution wrote last year, “just your paycheck.”
Of course, automation is only one technology remaking the industry. More and more, hotel guests opt for food-delivery apps such as Grubhub or Postmates over room service. They’re generally cheaper, and chains sometimes offer coupon codes for guests who decide to order out. But hotel workers have complained that when apps eclipse room service, hotel chains staff fewer room-service workers.
Food-delivery apps aren’t automation, but the choice between room service and Grubhub represents a give-and-take between gig-economy workers and employees. For smaller hotels especially, it may be more cost-effective to offer coupon codes to guests in lieu of staffing around-the-clock room service. That makes things cheaper for both the hotel and the guest, but workers miss out on hours and opportunities for tips.
There are historical parallels for time-saving tech and its relationship to exploitation, some of which reach back to the slave era. In “The Automation Charade,” the writer Astra Taylor criticizes a video from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation highlighting Jefferson’s personal dumbwaiter, a small mechanical lift used in Jefferson’s home that sent food and wine from the kitchens directly into the dining room. The device made dining more expedient than carrying food up several flights of stairs, but the video’s narrator reveals its second function: The meals prepared by Jefferson’s slaves could be served without guests seeing them, “making it appear as if the evening’s fare had been conjured by magic,” Taylor writes. The dumbwaiter’s purpose was to expedite food service, but its effect was to conceal, and thus abet, slavery. Here, removing the human element made it easier to hide labor and bondage.