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Paying the price for self-service


The check-in area in the Halifax airport is a gleaming example of the wonder of wasted space. The building arches up, fronted with two storeys of glass, while the vast expanse of stone floor waits for the echoing tap of hard-soled shoes. In the huge open space, the ranks of self-service machines stand like lonely cadets in rows.

You get your own boarding pass, tag your own bags, lug those bags to the conveyor belt and feed them in, while a handful of airline staff wander the open space warily, like gazelle expecting lions. In all, two WestJet staffers are there to help out, instead of the collection of counters and staff there used to be. And they’re not the only endangered species.

Many hotels now offer small loyalty points rewards if you “go green” and “limit your environmental footprint.” I’ve never been keen on clean towels every day, and I don’t need staff to make my bed. But it occurs to me that if enough people take the points and eschew the daily room cleaning, well, the hotel will be able to cut back a shift or two of the people who clean rooms — just the way the banks cut back hugely on tellers once banking machines (and their “convenience fees,” a.k.a. convenient profits for banks) started picking up the majority of banking transactions. You took over the service, the banks kept the savings on staff — and then charged you for that privilege.

As you voluntarily pick up the work that others used to do, the costs you pay for the service don’t drop, while the costs of providing it to you do.

Now, it’s self-serve gas pumps and self-serve grocery checkouts.

Instead of six cashiers checking people’s groceries, there’s one cashier overseeing six self-serve terminals. That’s a savings of five staff for the grocery store, but not much of a savings for you. Chances are, your helpful use of a self-serve checkup does not automatically reward you with cheaper groceries.

Now, they’re not the best jobs in the world, but here’s a question: are we all just co-operating in a great de-staffing? After all, the biggest costs in almost all businesses are wages and benefits. If you can install a piece of hardware that gets rid of the people, all you have to do is to wait the few years it takes to pay for the equipment and then all those former wages are gravy. (And, under our existing government, you can probably claim a hefty tax break for the expense of upgrading your equipment — “modernizing” — as well.)

Even minimum-wage jobs contribute to the economy. The money that low-wage earners make goes almost exclusively back into the marketplace; they simply don’t have the ability to tuck aside savings for retirement or anything else.

You can, of course, argue that you’d rather serve yourself — that you don’t want to talk to a teller or a cashier or a clerk.

But maybe you should be thinking of it another way: if you’re now agreeing to do the work that the store or airline used to do for you, shouldn’t you be getting cash off your ticket or service because the you’re helping the airline cut costs?

No?

You think minimum wage is bad?

Heck, you’re agreeing to work for that company for free.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic Regional columnist. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@tc.tc; his column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in TC Media’s daily papers.

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