Author Topic: Employers are monitoring computers, toilet breaks even emotions. Part 02  (Read 212 times)

Md. Anikuzzaman

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Amazon says its scanning devices “are common across the warehouse and logistics sector as well as in supermarkets, department stores and other businesses, and are designed to assist our people in performing their roles”, while the company “ensures all of its associates have easy access to toilet facilities, which are just a short walk from where they are working”. It adds: “Associates are allowed to use the toilet whenever needed. We do not monitor toilet breaks.”

Some of Bloodworth’s colleagues, he says, were angry about the level of monitoring – “but it was more cynicism and resignation. Most of the people I met hadn’t been in the job very long or were looking for other jobs. Every job was temporary and it was a workforce completely in flux.” Has Bloodworth seen the future? Will we all be monitored like this by our bosses in years to come? Possibly, he says. “One of the things that has arisen in response to the book is that people say work is going to be automated anyway, or workers need to be more flexible, as if this is the way of the future and it’s inevitable, which I think is quite dangerous. Amazon can get away with this because of political choices and because the trade union movement is quite weak. I think other businesses will look at Amazon, see they have had success with this business model – and seek to replicate it.”

For his book Working the Phones, Jamie Woodcock, a sociologist of work at the Oxford Internet Institute, spent six months working in a call centre. You get a sense of the monitoring, he says, “from the moment you walk in. You have TV screens that have everyone’s relative performance to each other displayed. Managers collect data on almost every single part of what you do. Every single phone call I ever made was digitally recorded and stored. In terms of monitoring, it’s like being able to call back every single thing somebody has made on an assembly line and retrospectively judge it for quality. We all make mistakes and we all have bad days, but this kind of monitoring can be made retrospectively to sack people and is used to give people a sense that they could lose their jobs at any moment.”

Monitoring is built into many of the jobs that form the so-called “gig economy”. It’s not easy to object to the constant surveillance when you’re desperate for work. What has surprised Spicer is how willingly people in better-paid jobs have taken to it. “Prisoners in the past were forced to wear tracking bands but now we willingly put on step trackers or other kinds of tracking devices given to us by our employers, and in some cases we pay for the privilege.” Companies such as IBM, BP, Bank of America, Target and Barclays have offered their employees Fitbit activity trackers.

It is part, Spicer says, of “this whole idea of wanting to improve or optimise yourself. A lot of technology is designed to not just feed back data about your performance to your boss, but also give it to you. I guess they’re also seen as cool or fashionable, so it’s not surprising they’re taken up so readily.”

Spicer has watched the shift away from “monitoring something like emails to monitoring people’s bodies – the rise of bio-tracking basically. The monitoring of your vital signs, emotions, moods.” Of Three Square Market’s practice of chipping employees, he says: “You can imagine that slowly extending. You could imagine things like employers asking to have your DNA in the future, and other kinds of data.”

Surveillance can have positive applications. It’s necessary (and legally required) in the financial industry to prevent insider trading. It could be used to prevent harassment and bullying, and to root out bias and discrimination. One interesting study last year monitored emails and productivity, and used sensors to track behaviour and interaction with management, and found that men and women behaved almost identically at work. The findings challenged the belief that the reason women are not promoted to senior levels is that they are less proactive or have fewer interactions with leaders, and simply need to “lean in”.

Still, says, Woodcock, “we need to have a conversation in society about whether work should be somewhere that you’re surveilled”. That need is perhaps most urgent where low-paid, insecure jobs are concerned. “If you work in the gig economy, you have a smartphone,” Woodcock points out, and that smartphone can be used to track you. “I think because many of these workplaces don’t have traditional forms of organisation or trade unions, management are able to introduce these things with relatively little collective resistance.”

The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain is well aware of the issues of monitoring and data collection. James Farrar is the chair of its United Private Hire Drivers branch, and the Uber driver who won a legal battle against the company last year for drivers’ rights. “They do collect an awful lot of information,” he says. “One of the things they will report to you on a daily basis is how good your acceleration and braking has been. You get a rating. The question is: why are they collecting that information?” Uber also monitors “unusual movements” of the phone when someone is driving (implying it knows if someone is using their phone while at the wheel) and, of course, tracks cars and drivers by GPS.

“My concern with it is this information is being fed into a dispatch algorithm,” he says. “We should have access to the data and understand how it’s being used. If some kind of quality score on my driving capability [is put into an algorithm], I may be offered less valuable work, kept away from the most valuable clients – who knows?” It’s not an unreasonable fear – the food delivery company Deliveroo already does something similar, monitoring its riders’ and drivers’ performance, and has started offering “priority access” when booking shifts to those who “provide the most consistent, quality service”. Uber, however, says its monitoring is intended only to deliver “a smoother, safer ride … This data is used to inform drivers of their driving habits and is not used to affect future trip requests.”

Not all surveillance is bad, says Farrar. In some ways, he would like more. He was assaulted by a passenger and is calling for CCTV in all vehicles, partly for the safety of drivers. “There is a role for surveillance technology,” he says. Ironically, when Farrar went for a meeting with Uber to discuss the assault, the company made him turn his phone off to prove he wasn’t recording it.