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The brave new world of work: where employees are treated as criminals

Every age has its estimate of the pressures and perils of work. Adam Smith, writing in the 18th century, focused on the toil and trauma of work. Karl Marx, writing in the 19th century, spoke of the alienation…

Online retailer Amazon has come in for criticism since it was revealed they electronically tag their factory workers - does this represent the ‘new world’ of work? Scottish Government

Every age has its estimate of the pressures and perils of work. Adam Smith, writing in the 18th century, focused on the toil and trauma of work. Karl Marx, writing in the 19th century, spoke of the alienation of labour.

In our own time, employment - for more and more people – is being stretched to embrace new personal tribulations and emotional troubles.

As revealed by the Financial Times, Amazon have been deploying electronic tagging on some employees. This scandal is one powerful indication of such torments.

The Amazon employees, based at the company’s flagship factory in Staffordshire, entered into labour contracts that required them to carry handheld devices. These electronic devices were, in turn, used to measure worker productivity in real time.

Workers carrying such devices were bestowed with percentages for their speed in completing designated tasks. Fast work scored high marks. The flipside, however, was the latent message that one might get axed for crimes like failing to keep up.

The devices also transmitted continual messages and warnings from management. Performance management thus covered updates on the grave risks of talking for too long with fellow employees (or the perils of taking too many toilet breaks).

Guardian journalist Zoe Williams declared Amazon’s electronic tagging part of “the new shamelessness” with which corporations treat lowly paid workers. This “shamelessness” encompasses a creeping criminalisation of employees, one that at once monitors and humiliates workers.

How might we best understand the spread of a workplace culture of electronic tagging? One place to start arguably concerns the wholesale shift away from jobs-for-life to short-term contract labour.

The end of a job-for-life, and of the associated notion of a “career” developed within a single organisation, has been interpreted by some critics as heralding the arrival of a “new economy” – flexible, mobile, networked. The global financier and philanthropist George Soros has argued that “transactions” now substitute for “relationships” in the global economic economy.

The “new economy”, structured by the twin forces of globalisation and new information technologies, is bound up with intensive forms of creation and destruction. Our economy is undeniably in the age of flexible employment, multiple careers, corporate networking and expanded professional horizons. Yet we also see routine corporate layoffs, endless downsizing, global electronic outsourcing and the rise of “McJobs”.

Globalisation has undeniably ushered into existence changes of enormous magnitude, and in such a world people are under intense pressure to keep pace with the sheer speed of change. Seemingly secure jobs are wiped out, literally, overnight. Multinational corporations move their operations from country to country in search of the best profit margin. Women and men clamber frenetically to obtain new skills or be discarded.

Amazon is not the first company to use the latest in technological advances to regulate its workforce and nor will it be the last. In addition to electronic tagging, corporate network administrators can today choose from a technology menu that includes full-body scanning and digital surveillance for extending the repertoire of their employee performance management.

Is Zoe Williams’s conjecture of an emergent “criminalisation” of workers overblown? Perhaps. Yet what does emerge from this brave new world of workplace electronic surveillance is something not so much sinister as it is soul-destroying. This concerns the widespread fear of social exclusion.

Today women and men in the workplace suffer, above all else, from what I call “disposability anxiety”. This is a fear of rejection, relegation or retrenchment. It is a fear that one doesn’t measure up, or does not work fast enough, or is not sufficiently flexible or adaptable.

From this angle, electronic tagging functions as a constant reminder that one can always be faster, lighter, better, more self-actualising. Readiness for what comes next, and willingness to embrace change, is central. Those that fail to live up to the requirements of the new employment flexibility are out – axed, retrenched, dumped.

The global electronic economy spawns transformations at the speed of light, from the sudden movement of factories across the world to the mass migration of workers. But globalisation, perhaps more insidiously, also penetrates deeply into the emotional fabric of people’s working lives. It reshuffles people, instilling fear as it drives out reliable security.

There appears to be a growing acceptance that today’s performance management culture is beneficial and even desirable. Yet the newly emergent electronic surveillance of workers, particularly through the use of tagging devices fixed to the body, obviously raises serious civil liberty and ethical concerns.

Above all, surely the fear of personal disposability that such practices promote borders on the criminal?