Like a lot of people over the past two years, I’ve been conducting most of my work virtually. Interactions with colleagues, researchers, and other people I’ve talked to have taken place almost exclusively via Zoom, and I even have some colleagues I’ve yet to meet in person. There are pros and cons to the arrangement, and much has been written about how to make the most out of virtual working.
A recent event involving Canadian outlets of restraint chain Freshii, however, has raised some ethical questions about a certain kind of virtual working arrangement, namely the use of virtual cashiers called “Percy.” Here’s how it works: instead of an in-the-flesh cashier to help you with your purchase, a screen will show you a person working remotely, ostensibly adding a personal touch to what might otherwise feel like an impersonal dining experience. The company that created Percy explains their business model as follows:
Unlike a kiosk or a pre-ordering app, which removes human jobs entirely, Percy allows for the face-to-face customer experience, that restaurant owners and operators want to provide their guests, by mobilizing a global and eager workforce.
It is exactly this “global and eager workforce” that has landed Freshii in hot water: it has recently been reported that Freshii is using workers who are living in Nicaragua and are paid a mere $3.75 an hour. In Canada, several ministers and labor critics have harshly criticized the practice, with some calling for new legislation to prevent other companies from doing the same thing.
Of course, outsourcing is nothing new: for years, companies have hired overseas contractors to do work that can be done remotely, and at a fraction of the cost of domestic workers. At least in Canada, companies are not obligated to pay outsourced employees a wage that meets the minimum standards of Canadian wage laws; indeed, the company that produces Percy has maintained that they are not doing anything illegal.
There are many worries one could have with the practice of outsourcing in general, primarily among them: that they take away job opportunities for domestic employees, and that they treat foreign employees unfairly by paying them below minimum wage (at least by the standards of the country where the business is located).
There are also some arguments in favor of the practice: in an op-ed written in response to the controversy, the argument is made that while $3.75 is very little to those living in Canada and the U.S., it is more significant for many people living in Nicaragua. What’s more, with automation risking many jobs regardless, wouldn’t it be better to at least pay someone for this work, as opposed to just giving it to a robot? Of course, this argument risks presenting a false dichotomy – one could, after all, choose to pay workers in Nicaragua a fair wage by Canadian or U.S. standards. But the point is still that such jobs provide income for people who need it.
If arguments about outsourcing are old news, then why all the new outrage? There does seem to be something particularly odd about the virtual cashier. Is it simply that we don’t want to be faced with a controversial issue that we know exists, but would rather ignore, or is there something more going on?
I think discomfort is definitely part of the problem – it is easier to ignore potentially problematic business practices when we are not staring them in the virtual face. But there is perhaps an additional part of the explanation, one that raises metaphysical questions about the nature of virtual work: when you work virtually, where are you?
There is a sense in which the answer to this question is obvious: you are wherever your physical body is. If I’m working remotely and on a Zoom call, the place I am would be in Toronto (seeing as that’s where I live) while my colleagues will be in whatever province or country they happen to be physically present in at the time.
When we are all occupying the same Zoom call, however, we are also in another sense in the same space. Consider the following. In this time of transition between COVID and (hopefully) post-COVID times, many in-person events have become hybrid affairs: some people will attend in-person, and some people will appear virtually on a screen. For instance, many conferences are being held in hybrid formats, as are government hearings, trials, etc.
Let’s say that I give a presentation at such a conference, that I’m one of these virtual attendees, and that I participate while sitting in the comfort of my own apartment. I am physically located in one place, but also attending the conference: I might not be able to be there in person, but there’s a sense in which I am still there, if only virtually.
It’s this virtual there-ness that I think makes a case like Percy feel more troubling. Although a Canadian cashier who worked at Freshii would occupy the physical space of a Freshii restaurant in Canada, a virtual cashier would do much of the same work, interact with the same customers, and see and hear most of the same things. In some sense, they are occupying the same space: the only relevant thing that differentiates them from their local counterpart is that they are not occupying it physically.
What virtual work has taught us, though, is that one’s physical presence really isn’t an important factor in a lot of jobs (excluding jobs that require physical labor, in-person contact, and work that is location-specific, of course). If the work of a Freshii cashier does not require physical presence, then it hardly seems fair that one be compensated at a much lower rate than one’s colleagues for simply not being there. After all, if two employees were physically in the same space, working the same job, we would think they should be compensated the same. Why, then, should it matter if one is there physically, and the other virtually?
Again, this kind of unfairness is present in many different kinds of outsourced work, and whether physical distance has ever been a justification for different rates of pay is up for debate. But with physical presence feeling less and less necessary for so many jobs, new working possibilities call into question the ethics of past practices.