The Inequalities of Workplace Surveillance

The Inequalities of Workplace Surveillance

The Inequalities of Workplace Surveillance

When bosses watch over our every move, the data they collect ends up making us even more unequal.


Chances are you work in an unequal place. Your boss probably makes significantly more money than you and has power over your pay, your hours, your benefits and your promotions. Now, technology is making it easier for your boss to use that power by tracking your work and feeding the data into decision-making algorithms.

The technological advances in these systems put us far past the days of time cards and clocking in. Freelancer, a platform for hiring web developers and designers, uses a technology called WorkSmart that takes screenshots of workers’ screens and then combines them with measures of app usage and keystrokes to come up with a measure of productivity. Many service jobs use technologies like Dayforce to calculate wages for paychecks in real time and turn away workers from scheduled shifts when sales are down. This unpredictable scheduling makes it hard for workers to earn a reliable wage and even enables employer wage theft.

Employers are also using advancements in technology to track workers beyond what is necessary for the job. They’re using algorithms to make hiring, firing, and other management determinations for them. It’s easy to claim that all these advancements make companies more efficient, better workplaces. The question is: better for whom?

The answer isn’t hard to find. Amazon-affiliated delivery drivers have reported feeling pressured by the company-provided navigation software and delivery routes. The pressure to finish work on time has led to drivers’ speeding and urinating in bottles rather than stopping for restroom breaks. Nurses in Florida wear geolocation tags to track the time they spend with patients and how efficiently they move through the hospital. While the hospital argues that the tracking system helps them better allocate staff, it also lessens the ability of nurses to use their discretion when deciding on the time they spend with patients. Nurses have to make the trade-off between looking at their patients and looking at the clock.

Employers who use these new surveillance technologies have significant amounts of data about their workers. And more important, they know more about their workers than their workers do about them. Online marketplaces, like Amazon, measure how often warehouse workers take breaks. It’s called time off task, and it is putting undue pressure on already strained workers who fear that their pay or job is on the line because their employer is tracking them so closely.

As companies push to collect as much data as possible, they create a kind of inequality in which unequal access to worker data can make it hard for workers to compete or bargain for higher wages. Without access to this data and the way it is used to make decisions, workers have few pathways to contest harmful employer decisions like discrimination and wage theft. In 2018, workers at Kroger and American Airlines filed federal and state lawsuits arguing that their employers used time-tracking technology to subtract from their hourly wages.

Instead, firms can use the outputs of these algorithms as an excuse to pay workers less or fire them. That’s because these formulas are written in favor of the employer and not the employee. Worker-surveillance software waters down the definition of work, changing it to mean whatever action directly results in profits for the company. Worker discretion is not considered valuable. For Amazon-affiliated delivery drivers, this means activities like working safely and interacting politely with customers do not matter.

By removing subjectivity, or the intangible qualities like interpersonal skills that make people good at their jobs, algorithms fail to capture the fullness of what workers bring to a company, like deliberation, problem-solving, or quality of interactions. Trimming what counts as work can lead to poorer, more stressful work conditions and facilitate wage theft.

Technology is changing what’s at stake at work, and accountability options for workers are limited. Employers have more power. Employees have less control at work. Humans design these systems and ultimately should be accountable for the outcomes they produce. Yet employers can claim that hiring and firing decisions are the result of objective measures of worker performance because they were decided by algorithms rather than people. A Baltimore Amazon fulfillment center fired hundreds for workers for failing to meet its “objective” productivity measure. These workers have very little recourse, especially since Amazon, one of the largest employers in the United States, has vigorously fought unionization efforts among its workforce for years.

If these stories make you feel worried, don’t be. Technology is not inherently harmful. But how humans use it can be. Worker surveillance is being used to reinforce the worsening relationship between employers and employees. In order to change it, we need to assert measures of worker and public accountability.

The solution is not inherently collecting more data, though companies should share relevant data with workers and policy-makers. Instead, policy should be used to limit the ways in which surveillance gives companies too much power in the labor market. Antitrust regulators can place guidelines on workplace surveillance that keep company power over wages fair. The Federal Communications Commission has a history of placing conditions on firms that define bargaining over prices in contracts. The way in which workplace surveillance data gives firms unequal power in wage setting can be approached in a similar way.

The dynamics created by these workplace technologies are not predestined. We can control them. In the United States, both unionized and nonunionized workers have almost no say in which workplace technologies are used. We can give workers more control to negotiate the scope of workplace technology in union contracts and set industry standards via wage boards. Associations of nonunionized workers can use direct action to raise public awareness of the harms of excessive workplace surveillance and pressure companies to change their ways. However, unions give workers the best means to act on their concerns about the way surveillance affects job quality and job satisfaction.

Technology may change the conditions in the workplace. But the conditions of worker power remain the same: Collective action and public pressure must keep private companies in check.

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