Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘surveillance’

From Whole Foods to Amazon, Invasive Technology Controlling Workers Is More Dystopian Than You Think

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

thor bensonYou’ve been fired. According to your employer’s data, your facial expressions showed you were insubordinate and not trustworthy. You also move your hands at a rate that is considered substandard. Other companies you may want to work for could receive this data, making it difficult for you to find other work in this field.

That may sound like a scenario straight out of a George Orwell novel, but it’s the future many American workers could soon be facing.

In early February, media outlets reported that Amazon had received a patent for ultrasonic wristbands that could track the movement of warehouse workers’ hands during their shifts. If workers’ hands began moving in the wrong direction, the wristband would buzz, issuing an electronic corrective. If employed, this technology could easily be used to further surveil employees who already work under intense supervision.

Whole Foods, which is now owned by Amazon, recently instituted a complex and punitive inventory system where employees are graded based on everything from how quickly and effectively they stock shelves to how they report theft. The system is so harsh it reportedly causes employees enough stress to bring them to tears on a regular basis.

UPS drivers, who often operate individually on the road, are now becoming increasingly surveilled. Sensors in every UPS truck track when drivers’ seatbelts are put on, when doors open and close and when the engines start in order to monitor employee productivity at all times.

The technology company Steelcase has experimented with monitoring employees’ faces to judge their expressions. The company claims that this innovation, which monitors and analyzes workers’ facial movements throughout the work day, is being used for research and to inform best practices on the job. Other companies are also taking interest in this kind of mood-observing technology, from Bank of America to Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc.

These developments are part of a larger trend of workers being watched and judged—often at jobs that offer low pay and demand long hours. Beyond simply tracking worker performance, it is becoming more common for companies to monitor the emails and phone calls their employees make, analyzing personal traits along with output.

Some companies are now using monitoring techniques—referred to as “people analytics”—to learn as much as they can about you, from your communication patterns to what types of websites you visit to how often you use the bathroom. This type of privacy invasion can cause employees immense stress, as they work with the constant knowledge that their boss is aware of their every behavior—and able to use that against them as they see fit.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute at Cornell University, tells In These Times that the level of surveillance workers are facing is increasing exponentially.

“If you look at what some people call ‘people analytics,’ it’s positively frightening,” Maltby says. “People analytics devices get how often you talk, the tone of your voice, where you are every single second you’re at work, your body language, your facial expressions and something called ‘patterns of interaction.’” He explains that some of these devices even record what employees say at work.

According to some experts, this high level of employee surveillance may actually harm the companies that use these techniques.

“In general, people experience more stress when they feel that someone is looking over their shoulder, real or virtual,” Michael Childers, director at the School for Workers, tells In These Times. “There is a large body of research documenting that stressful workplaces can potentially lead to many problems that reduce company profits, including increased turnover, more sick days used, higher workplace compensation costs, and ironically, even lower productivity.”

Richard Wolff, a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, tells In These Times that this type of surveillance “deepens the antagonism, mutual suspicion, and hostility of employer relative to employee. It degrades worker morale and will probably fail—leading employers to conclude not that such surveillance is a bad idea, but rather than they need to automate to get rid of workers altogether.”

While this level of worker surveillance may be alarming, it has so far gone largely unchecked. Congress has never passed a law to regulate employee surveillance, Maltby says, and he doesn’t think it will any time soon. However, he says that either Congress or the Supreme Court could finally decide that employers have gone too far when they start tracking employee movement during a worker’s time off.

“The fight we’re gearing up for is [tracking] behavior off duty,” Maltby says. “Every cell phone in America has GPS capabilities baked into it,” along with cameras and microphones. Maltby worries that employers could soon begin using this technology to track the behavior of their employees outside of work. If this were to happen, Maltby believes U.S. lawmakers could be compelled to step in.

One the of the fears that labor and privacy advocates hold is that, over time, workers could get used to these types of invasions, and begin accepting them as a normal part of the job.

“The first time people hear about the newest privacy invasion, they get extremely angry, but eventually they just get used to it,” Maltby says. For example, at many jobs drug tests are now seen as standard, despite the fact that they invade employees’ private lives by monitoring their behaviors outside of work.

At a time of soaring inequality, low-wage workers are bearing the brunt of efforts to increase productivity and profits. The rise of these new tracking techniques show that companies are moving toward increasing their control over the lives of their employees.

While workers at the bottom of the wage scale may be the first to face such dystopian working conditions, other industries could soon embrace them. If we don’t want to live and work under the constant supervision of a far-away boss, now is the time to speak up and push back.

This article was originally published in In These Times on June 4, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Thor Benson is a traveling writer, currently located in Los Angeles, Calif. Benson was born in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. His journalism has been featured in: The Atlantic, Wired, Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, MTV News, Slate, Salon, Vice, ATTN:, Mic, In These Times, Paste, The New Republic, The Verge, Fast Company, Truthdig and elsewhere. He has been interviewed on The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann, Ring of Fire, HuffPost Live, The Lip, The Young Turks, in upcoming documentaries and elsewhere. 

Walmart patents technology to eavesdrop on workers

Monday, July 16th, 2018

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.

Tesla Workers Say Elon Musk is a Union Buster. The NLRB Just Gave Their Case a Boost.

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

Tesla factory workers have been trying for months to win restitution for the company’s alleged union-busting and harassment. Now, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint against the company appears to be making strides.

Last August, the NLRB filed a complaint against Tesla after finding merit in a number of accusations from employees at its Fremont, California factory. Some Tesla factory workers say the company engaged in various forms of union-busting, through harassment and surveillance. They also claim that Tesla required them to sign a confidentiality agreement which prohibited them from discussing the details of their working conditions.

On March 30, the NLRB amended the complaint to add new allegations from workers which the board found to have merit. In the new claims, Tesla workers say the company investigated them after they posted information on a pro-union Facebook page.

The case has now been scheduled to go before an NLRB administrative law judge in June. After hearing the case, the judge will issue a decision and recommended order. The fact that the complaints were deemed to have merit, and that workers will have their concerns heard, constitute significant developments in the case.

The amended NLRB complaint comes as Tesla, and its CEO Elon Musk, are being criticized for failing to live up to their production goals. After Tesla shares dropped last month, its engineering chief Doug Field sent an email to staff attacking people who doubted Musk’s vision. “I find that personally insulting, and you should too,” Field wrote in a March 23 email. “Let’s make them regret ever betting against us. You will prove a bunch of haters wrong.”

In an internal memo from March 21, the company also announced that a small number of “volunteers” would be brought in to help assist with Tesla’s Model 3 line. After Bloomberg reported this fact on March 29, Tesla informed the outlet that volunteer shifts would only take place on one day, while production of the company’s Model X and S cars was stopped. Employees who regularly work on those models could either volunteer to work on the Model 3, take paid time off, or take unpaid time off that day.  “The world is watching us very closely, to understand one thing: How many Model 3’s can Tesla build in a week?” Field wrote in his email to staff. “This is a critical moment in Tesla’s history, and there are a number of reasons it’s so important. You should pick the one that hits you in the gut and makes you want to win.”

The working conditions of Tesla employees, and their organizing efforts, were brought to the public’s attention last February when Jose Moran, a production worker at Tesla’s plant in Fremont, published a Medium post criticizing the company’s hourly wages and high number of preventable work injuries. “Tesla isn’t a startup anymore. It’s here to stay,” wrote Moran. “Workers are ready to help make the company more successful and a better place to work. Just as CEO Elon Musk is a respected champion for green energy and innovation, I hope he can also become a champion for his employees.” In his piece, Moran mentions that Tesla workers had reached out to the United Auto Workers (UAW) for assistance with their unionizing efforts.

Workers at the Tesla factory say they were reprimanded by management for printing copies of Moran’s post and attempting to pass them out, along with information about the UAW. Three workers cited this action in the charges that became part of the August complaint from the NLRB. Workers also claim they were harassed for wearing UAW shirts. The updated complaint claims that two workers were investigated and interrogated by Tesla after they posted company information in a private Facebook group called “Fremont Tesla Employees for UAW Representation.” Last October, one of the employees was fired and the other was given a disciplinary warning. Tesla said it fired the employee after he admitted to lying about the incident during their internal investigation.

That same month, Tesla fired 700 of its employees without notice or warning, about 2 percent of its entire workforce. The UAW promptly filed a federal complaint against the company, claiming that some of the employees were fired because they were part of the unionization efforts. On a quarterly earnings call last November, Elon Musk defended the firings and called criticisms of them “ridiculous.” He pointed to Tesla’s supposedly high standards for performance. “You have two boxers of equal ability, and one’s much smaller, the big guy’s going to crush the little guy, obviously,” said Musk. “So the little guy better have a heck of a lot more skill or he’s going to get clobbered. So that is why our standards are high. They’re not high because we believe in being mean to people. They’re high because if they’re not high, we will die.”

Last November, the UAW filed another complaint against Tesla. This one concerned its Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada. The filing, which was obtained by Jalopnik via an FOIA request, charges Tesla with intimidating, surveillance, and interrogating employees who participated in union organizing. The NLRB consolidated these charges into the ongoing complaint.

Earlier this month, Tesla released the following statement regarding the amended NLRB complaint: “These allegations from the UAW are nothing new. The only thing that’s changed since the UAW filed these charges is that many of the allegations have been outright dismissed or are not being pursued by the NLRB. There’s no merit to any of them.”

Legally, Tesla has to respond to the newest round of complaints by April 13. The case will go before an administrative judge on June 11.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

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