British Columbia

Virtual cashiers are now in B.C. What does this mean for jobs in our province?

Freshii restaurants in B.C., have started using virtual cashiers, and how it will impact our economy is a little complicated.

Despite labour shortage, minister urges businesses to hire locally to strengthen B.C. economy

A virtual cashier is pictured at a Freshii restaurant in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A new way of ordering food has entered the conversation in B.C. — virtual cashiers are popping up at fast-food franchise Freshii locations across the country. 

Rather than having a person standing there in real life taking your order, they're live on a screen taking orders from somewhere else. 

The idea is getting some backlash, with many raising concerns about wages and working conditions. According to a report from the Toronto Star, these individuals are making about $3.75 US (about $4.78 Cdn) per hour — a stark contrast to the $15.65 Cdn minimum wage in B.C.

When CBC asked a cashier in Kamloops, B.C., about whether or not they were also entitled to tips, an in-store employee told us he was paid "separately," indicating the virtual cashiers do not receive a cut from tips. 

Freshii did not respond to CBC's multiple requests for an interview. 

The company started piloting virtual cashiers in its Ontario stores in April. 

At the time, B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains tweeted that the company could "keep their outsourcing jobs pilot project away from our province."

But he also said there's nothing the government can do to prevent virtual cashiers in B.C. — our labour laws only protect employees who are physically in the province. 

"I am actually disappointed as the minister of labour that some companies are using technologies to outsource jobs that belong to British Columbian workers here," Bains said. 

"It goes against my goal and our government's goal to have an economy that includes everyone and have the workers have fair wages and benefits paid to them."

He points out that other businesses, such as call centres, have been outsourcing workers for years.

But rather than outsource jobs to other countries, Bains wants to see businesses hire locally so that workers will put their earnings back into the local economy. 

With an ongoing labour shortage that's forced employers to get creative to recruit and retain staff, that may be easier said than done. 

Ross Hickey, an associate professor in the faculty of management at UBC Okanagan, warns British Columbians against judging the new technology at first glance.

"We don't want to discourage businesses from trying to innovate," he said.

"If we have labour laws and regulations and policies that are making it difficult for firms to innovate, we may end up with less labour and more machines."

He suggests a business might do this because of the difficulty finding domestic labour, and virtual cashiers are an alternative to self-checkouts. Other restaurants like McDonald's and IKEA bistros have screens for ordering food, cutting out the cashier altogether.

"This looks a little bit better than perhaps going fully automatic with their assistance," Hickey said.

But, he added, anyone who doesn't like it should protest with their wallet — don't go there, and the business will get the message.

"No one's forcing you to frequent those establishments. I think that those establishments that use [virtual cashiers] would get the message quite quickly if they no longer have customers."

With files from Ben Nelms