End Worker Surveillance
Above photo: Amazon’s JFK8 Warehouse, October 14, 2020.
Put Workers over Profits.
Farhiyo Warsame, a warehouse worker, was targeted, surveilled, and fired by Amazon after speaking up about unsafe conditions at work, according to the Awood Center. Amazon tracked Farhiyo’s time in between each small task and used the accumulated extra seconds to justify threats for her eventual termination. Through this “rate” and “time off task” tracking system, Amazon would have you believe it monitors work productivity — but in reality, this system is used to control the physical movements of workers, dictate when or if they can use the bathroom, discipline workers and, in the end, has been used repeatedly to retaliate against workers. It enforces an unreasonable pace of work that leads to the unusually high number of injuries at Amazon.
Today, workers are subjected to an unprecedented level of workplace surveillance and control. From voice monitoring to tracking applications, these systems are being introduced into workplaces that are already stacked against low-wage workers, creating an environment ripe for exploitation. Surveillance gives corporations more power over workers. When combined with automation that dictates the pace and type of work, it results in a more dangerous, punishing, and precarious workplace. It can also lead to lower wages, deskilling of jobs, mental health stresses, the potential for racial discrimination, and a chilling effect on organizing. Workers urgently need legal protections that prevent these harms and end exploitative practices, including Amazon’s rate and time off task monitoring.
The use of surveillance to exploit workers has a long history in the United States, going back to the plantation and then in manufacturing, where Taylorism and other systems of “scientific management” established control over workers’ every move. The trend has worsened dramatically in recent years, and laws and regulatory agencies have failed to catch up.
Meanwhile, with few protections for workers, corporate employers have been able to grow profits by demanding and enforcing dangerous speeds, controlling each physical movement of a worker, and maximizing opportunities to make workers replaceable and expendable.
New technologies that monitor and control workers represent a radical transfer of power from workers to corporations. At Amazon warehouses, workers report that a scanner tells you exactly where to go, gives you seconds to get there, and then orders you what to do next. Your entire workload and every task you complete is managed in seconds. If you take longer than the seconds you are given, the time is added to your time off task. If you go to the bathroom or take a rest, this is also added to time off task. At the end of the day, if your productivity falls below a moving threshold, you are disciplined, and eventually fired.
Amazon’s contract delivery drivers face similar monitoring, with dispatchers pressuring drivers to deliver increasing volumes of packages in a single shift — even if that means drivers must speed or skip bathroom breaks to meet delivery quotas. At Amazon, this is paired with intelligence systems and practices to monitor potential organizing activity outside of work.
This level of monitoring and control has no place in our economy. Corporate employers say that these technologies make workplaces more efficient and are necessary to be competitive, but those claims do not hold up to scrutiny. Instead, we find:
- Individual productivity monitoring is used to enforce a dangerous pace of work. Within Amazon warehouses, the pervasive and punitive nature of tracking rate and time off task for each worker results in nearly double the injury rate and greater job precarity, as compared to the sector. While Amazon claimed that they stopped disciplining workers for productivity during the pandemic, the practice continued. This type of monitoring is designed for workers to fail.
- Worker surveillance disproportionately harms Black and brown workers. Black and brown workers are more likely to be in low-wage jobs, less likely to be listened to when they raise concerns, and more likely to face retaliation. Additionally, algorithmic decision-making can dramatically reinforce and exacerbate racial disparities, particularly where people impacted have no recourse or power. For many of these workers, the level of monitoring is akin to discriminatory police surveillance in their communities.
- Surveillance is being used punitively, rather than to keep workers safe. Corporations are adopting new workplace technologies for the sole purpose of disciplining individual workers, even in areas where technology could be used to improve working conditions. When Amazon developed new technologies to determine if workers were within six feet of one another, they then immediately used this information to discipline and then fire workers.
- Surveillance is being used to retaliate against workers and undermine their protected rights to speak out and take collective action. With limitless surveillance at an employer’s fingertips, targeting a particular worker is trivial — illegal retaliation is easily obscured. Amazon has used monitoring of time off task and social distancing to retaliate against workers after they spoke up about safety concerns. Surveillance of workers is not limited to the workplace, and it was recently reported that Amazon monitored private social media groups of Amazon Flex drivers, and tried to recruit an intelligence analyst to investigate labor organizing activities.
- Pervasive surveillance and automated control increase corporate profits on the backs of workers, by reducing wages and deskilling jobs. While some technologies, such as supermarket scanners, allow companies to raise profits by using workers more efficiently, surveillance technologies raise profits by the cruder mechanism of increasing the exploitation of workers. The supermarket scanner allows each worker to serve more customers with the same level of effort, but surveillance technologies can dangerously accelerate the pace of work. The costs of injury and burnout are then offloaded onto families and the workers compensation system, rather than being internalized by the company.
During the pandemic, corporate employers have expanded workplace surveillance in ways that can compromise worker privacy and autonomy, and are using those tools for worker discipline and control. Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe working place (e.g. by slowing work speeds and providing handwashing breaks). Instead, Amazon developed a punitive social distance surveillance system that it gave to other corporate employers.
In response, state and federal governments should enact protections against workplace surveillance — ending predatory practices, such as Amazon’s rate and time off task monitoring. These protections should prioritize worker health and safety, fortify the rights of workers to speak out and organize, guard against low-road business models, require transparency in the use of new technologies, protect against new forms of tech-driven racial discrimination, and incentivize innovation that enhances worker well-being. Workers deserve better than models of exploitation developed on plantations and in factories over one hundred years ago.