Ontario minimum wage hike sparks debate over replacing human workers with machines

While some restaurant owners say using automated tellers merely allow existing staff to provide better customer service, one experts warns a shift to automated kiosks could be costly for the Canadian economy.

McDonald's owner in Windsor, Ont. says automated kiosks have encouraged him to hire more workers

Restaurants in Canada are increasingly turning to automated kiosks for self-serve ordering and payment options for customers. (Nicolas Pham/CBC)

A company trying to capitalize on the province's proposed minimum wage hike by urging restaurants to replace employees with less expensive automated machines has sparked debate among industry watchers.

While some shop managers say electronic tellers merely allow existing staff to provide better customer service, one expert warns a shift to automated kiosks could be costly for the Canadian economy. 

Employees spend their earnings and contribute to the economy — machines don't, said Louis Durand, professor of industrial relations at Laurentian University.

"If you replace 20 per cent of jobs in Canada with technology in the next 20 years, the social impact will be enormous," he said.

An advertisement from Toronto-based company Solo Series compares the cost of a human employee to that of an electronic self-serve kiosk. (Metro News Toronto)

Toronto-based company Solo Series, which makes a host of electronic kiosks, recently used the Ontario government's plan for a $15 minimum wage as a marketing tool to encourage sales.

A newspaper advertisement the company published this week compares the cost of an employee to the $2.50 it says it costs to operate one of its kiosks. 

The ad goes on to say the machine never needs overtime, never arrives late to work and never gets an order wrong. 

"​This ad has a negative side, but it sure will ring a bell for employers, who just learned a bunch of their employees will cost them 30 per cent more in a year and a half," Durand said. "It will be really attractive to them." 

March towards automation

Restaurants are not the only sectors feeling the technological shift as many white-collar workers are expected to be replaced by automated services, according to experts. 

The Mowat Centre, a public policy think-tank at the University of Toronto, estimates between 1.5 million and 7.5 million Canadians — many of them highly skilled workers — could be replaced by technology over the next decade because of rapid advances, such as artificial intelligence and robotics.

Customers in Windsor, Ont. had a range of opinions about their preference for humans over self-serve machines. 

"I prefer the self-serve," said Alex Gosse. "There's usually less of a line and it's a pretty easy process once you do it once or twice."

Kristina Wilcox prefers human interaction when she's shopping. She also works in retail and worries about job losses if kiosks become more commonplace. 

Andrea Kiss uses human cashiers when shopping, but prefers an automated teller when she's just picking up a few items. (Nicolas Pham/CBC)

Andrea Kiss, though, will typically use human cashiers when shopping, unless she's only buying one or two items. 

"I think they're good. They're quick," she said of the self-serve options. "If I have a lot of things, I go to a cashier."

Tellers not a replacement

Some McDonald's restaurants have introduced self-serve kiosks as part a broad ranging strategy to create a "restaurant of the future," said Jason Trussel, who owns five McDonalds restaurants.

He told CBC the machines are not going to replace human workers. In the past 18 months, his staffing levels have increased by 66 employees. Trussel introduced the kiosks about a year ago. 

The machines simply give people more options, which brings in more customers and requires more staff, he said. 

"I continue to push my managers to hire more because we have the demand for it," Trussel said. "We're trying to make sure our guests have the ability to choose how they want to interact with us."