Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Walmart patents technology to eavesdrop on workers

July 16th, 2018 | ThinkProgress Staff

Walmart has just patented surveillance technology which would allow it to eavesdrop on worker’s conversations and help monitor them to ensure they meet the company’s “performance metrics.”

The “Listening to the Frontend” system would collect audio data from the stores’ cashier areas, allowing it to pick up everything from beeps to conversations with customers to, potentially, conversations between workers.  It would then analyse the sounds to ensure the employee is working efficiently — and help Walmart achieve “cost savings” and “guest satisfaction.”

“We’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers,” a Walmart spokesperson told Buzzfeed News, who first reported the story. “We don’t have any further details to share on these patents at this time.”

It’s unclear when, or even if, Walmart will ever actually introduce this technology. But it is another example of how corporate giants are using technology in an attempt to track and control their workers — despite evidence showing that excess surveillance makes workers feel nervous and actually ends up slowing them down.

Amazon — whose profits topped $3 billion in 2017 — recently patented wristbandswhich can precisely track where its warehouse workers are, and point them in the right direction via vibration. In 2013, the Financial Times also documented how Amazon workers’ personal sat-navs set target times for them to shelve packages, and reports them to management if they’re behind schedule.

The surveillance isn’t just relegated to Amazon’s warehouses either. A 2015 New York Times story documented a similar Big Brother-esque atmosphere at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle. In a rare internal email, CEO Jeff Bezos pushed back on the article, saying it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

Uber’s instant rating system is similarly stressful on workers, punishing drivers who fall bellow a 4.6.

Unsurprisingly, being constantly tracked and asked to meet robot-like targets is having a devastating effect on workers. The British GMB trade union previously warned that the kinds of “regimes” Amazon employers worked under were causing them to have musculoskeletal problems as well as stress and anxiety.

“It’s hard, physical work, but the constant stress of being monitored and never being able to drop below a certain level of performance is harsh,” Elly Baker, GMB’s lead officer for Amazon, said. “You can’t be a normal person. You have to be an above-average Amazon robot all the time.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luke Barnes is a reporter at ThinkProgress. He previously worked at MailOnline in the U.K., where he was sent to cover Belfast, Northern Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated in 2015 from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science. He has also interned at Talking Points Memo, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Narratively.

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