A January 2021 article in the Financial Times discussed a new surveillance system implemented by Amazon. Solidarity spoke to a trade union organiser about new workplace surveillance systems.
Some employers don’t really care what happens in the workplace, as long as the job gets done. Sometimes surveillance systems are just there for show. Even Amazon’s new systems have turned out to be hot air in some places, it’s just someone monitoring CCTV rather than the innovative smart technology they’ve claimed.
We have seen the arbitrary use of CCTV footage in disciplinaries over Covid-related issues, such as whether people are wearing masks. In general fights over the use of CCTV are quite common, but the law tends to side with employers, who’ve won court cases on their right to monitor and surveil workers.
In warehouses, distribution, and manufacturing, basic surveillance and monitoring systems for individual workers are the norm. Workers are used to having their labour meticulously surveilled. Workers use handheld scanners or consoles which monitor their work and calculate a “pick rate”, essentially a productivity measure. In some workplaces there are performance targets tied to pick rates, which can lead to disciplinary action if they’re not met.
There is significant variation over the extent to which employers can use these systems to discipline and control workers. Invariably the key factor is workplace organisation. In Amazon, where there is little to no organisation, the existing monitoring systems, which were in place pre-pandemic, are frequently used to dismiss people for having low productivity. But in warehouses where there’s strong union organisation, no-one is dismissed for having a low pick rate, even where management do monitor and collect data on it.
Another form of surveillance, particularly in industries that involve workers driving from job to job, is via satnav monitoring. In British Gas, bosses tried to implement a new system that would monitor productivity and calculate the time taken to attend jobs, which would then be integrated with the payroll system. But the software essentially didn’t work, and a lot of the working out ended up having to be done on paper.
In industries like that, where you have semi-autonomous craft workers, surveillance and monitoring also creates a big risk of division and conflict between different groups of workers. For example, a dispatcher working in an office might have to do some monitoring of engineers in the field in order to send jobs to them, which can lead to tensions.
The development of new technologies creates concerns about how it might be used in a workplace context, but even when new technologies are being applied, the general methods are very old. Currently we’re seeing a trend towards the reintroduction of piecework, and even “time-and-motion studies” to monitor production. Even these basic ideas of intense surveillance and monitoring aren’t new, or necessarily tied to modern technology. You can trace them back to something like Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon”.
In manufacturing, it’s noticeable that there are fewer older workers than a generation ago. That’s a function of the job speeding up and becoming more physically demanding. Roles that older workers might have been more physically comfortable with have been scrapped. In some workplaces in the auto sector, we’ve seen bosses enlist workers to design productivity monitoring systems themselves, essentially coercing workers into colluding in their own exploitation.
There’s a big question mark over how effective any of these systems are at actually improving productivity. In Amazon, they lead to significant staff churn – you’ll have people being sacked for failing to hit productivity targets, but they’ll be hired back a few weeks later. It’s less about actually improving productivity and workplace efficiency, even on the bosses’ terms, and more about simply asserting class power.
There’s a comparison to be made with sickness policies; there’s lots of evidence showing that harsh, punitive sickness policies don’t actually improve attendance. They lead to greater absences and end up costing employers more money. But what the bosses gain from such a policy is instilling a sense of fear in the workers, reminding them who’s in control.
That’s really what this about – how far the bosses can push the frontier of control in the workplace.