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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?

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44 Comments sorted by

    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      Rather than depressing Henry, I would have thought you would be seeing a grand application of IT.

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  1. Thomas Fields

    "progressive" watcher

    That is actually quite innovative.

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  2. Lydia Isokangas

    Australian

    Perhaps the problem with this is that CEO's are so far removed from the workers and lower management that its too easy for them to dehumanise them. The CEO's never personally have to face the guy that they are going to sack, they never have to justify their decisions personally to the newly unemployed. That's why they can be so inhumane and treat the workers like easily disposable machines.

    And I bet you that the middle management is being measured with the results of these electronic tracking devices pinned on the workers, so if they don't ensure that a certain amount of work is performed then they're out the door too. I've no idea at what point in the management chain people actually have security and control over their working lives.

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Lydia Isokangas

      CEOs rarely would be facing anyone who is losing employment Lydia, not unless it is in an owner/manager set-up and then you'll usually find they will go to great lengths to have their business and employment of people continue.

      CEOs of larger companies will have their own success measured by a number of factors and they too will be looking for new employment if KPIs are not met, work procedures or loss of staff not occurring because of being inhumane but that they are charged with having a competive and profitable organisation and you will find that many organisational restructures involve reductions of staff at all levels in an organisation.

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    2. Lydia Isokangas

      Australian

      In reply to Greg North

      I agree with you that owners of small to medium enterprises do go to great lengths to keep their employees and their businesses going. I was the beneficiary of a small business owner who cut his income so that he could continue to employ all of us working for him during the worst of the GFC. In return I was prepared to cut my pay/hours to keep him in business and myself in employment. My ex-boss was a fantastic employer and considered all of his employees as people deserving respect!

      In contrast…

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    3. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Lydia Isokangas

      Well said Lydia. Your boss is rare - sort of the ideal I used to believe in.

      A friend of my mother's had a breakdown as he was the 'chosen' to slash employees and is now on a DSP - ironic but not funny. Meanwhile, CEO's are still laughing all the way to the bank.

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    4. margaret m

      old lady

      In reply to Lydia Isokangas

      I have no doubt Lydia that there will be a new appreciation for our unions and a resurgence of membership especially if this particular Liberal Country Party are voted into government.

      It is small business whose owners are committed to their towns, regions and workforce not just the profit only, they are the business that we need to protect.

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  3. Don Williams

    Water Policy Analyst

    How can we understand the spread of a workplace culture of electronic tagging? The starting point is that electronic tagging and real time monitoring are feasible, technically and financially. We weren't debating this twenty years ago because it was still science fiction then.

    In social terms, the growth of this type of surveillance could be linked with the erosion of the concept of privacy. After all, if your life outside work is available for the world to see via Facebook, Twitter, etc, how can you argue for what you do at work to be shielded from scrutiny?

    I'll declare myself in favour of being able to keep your life to yourself and say that I am horrified by the idea of real time, relentless snooping on every second of your time at work. What worries me is that the overturning of the concept of privacy, which seems to be all too readily accepted by many, will leave my view increasingly irrelevant.

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Don Williams

      Your time at work is not really your own Don and never has been for you are employed by an employer.
      The article on Amazon linked to has been written to emphasize snooping if you like that word and criminalisation whereas for a huge wharehouse to be efficient, electronic storage and then messaging for retrieval is ideal.

      I would suggest that a next step in efficiency for that type of work would be to have sector retrievers putting articles on a pick-up bench that other gophers would retrieve…

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    2. Chris Saunders

      retired

      In reply to Greg North

      Reading your comment, I wonder if the lessons of old are taken into account. These wonderful big machines that have to be constantly fed by humans at the machine’s pace meant the only way a team of workers could ever get a break from a gruelling eight hours apart from lunch was by throwing a literal spanner in the works.

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    3. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Greg North

      People can be payed by the hour or by piece work, so in the latter they can set their own pace.
      In the former there is an incentive for the employer to set a cracking pace, not necessarilly reflected in the resulting well being of the worker or reflected in the level of reward for that cracking pace of labour.
      Those agricultural sects in The States, the Menonites and Anabaptists and others, seem to have sustained themselves, setting their own pace, and do not have the productivity demands which produce Mega tractors to reduce wage costs.
      So it is by no means a concluded argument.
      Except, of course, for those already committed to their own conclusions.

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  4. John C Smith

    Auditor

    It is already here. I have heard a local paper and leaflet dropper uses a device to monitor the distributors. The job is to drop the leaflets and papers in to letter boxes and other receptacles or leave them stuck between anything. The dropper has to wear or carry this device and swtch it on when he start and off when he finish.The supervisor can monitor the movement as well as check on the work of the walker who has to push a trolley along the foot path with the haul. They get less than a cent for each item but cost to a business is more than 20 cents for even a small card. They are treated as contractors and no workers’ compo or any other entitlements. I hear they give a bigger discount for political material.

    Then there is software that check on key board and mouse movements (Wellnomics or something) of lower level employees of even government departments. The other one is some sort of Score that check on their attendance and movements.

    We are ahead of the people of Amazon

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    1. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to John C Smith

      One of my part-time jobs while at Uni, was data entry - way back in the 80's.

      Managers could check on speeds of workers by their key-strokes and would descend upon a hapless worker if they were not up to speed.

      We've had microchips forever; not so much a matter of why as it is when employees will be tagged like office equipment

      Employers must keep an eye on those 'low calibre' workers.

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  5. Mark Reynolds

    Technology Manager

    A reality check. Every time we buy our groceries or have a package delivered at home, our purchases have come from a distribution centre that works as described in this article. We all enjoy the low costs, freshness and speed of delivery that modern logistics networks provide.

    For more than 20 years Woolworths, Coles, Australia Post, Fast Track Express and every other distributor you can name has adopted logistics methods that use "Warehouse Management Systems" to micro-manage the tasks of forklift drivers and other warehouse workers through electronic devices.

    The results have been stunningly effective in efficiency and reliability. What about the impacts on workers? It would be interesting to find out more. There's no shortage of potential research locations across Australia. Simply apply to any large retailer, courier company, or the Logistics Association.

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    1. Jim Latta

      music therapist

      In reply to Mark Reynolds

      The 'reality check' is that the fruit and vegetables now taste like crap, Australia post delivers letters and packages to wrong addresses, and privatization of essential services is simply madness.

      Social exclusion doesn't even scratch the surface.

      Still ... I suppose it beats training thugs and guard dogs in Dubai to attack our dock workers.

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  6. Brad Adams

    logged in via Facebook

    The workers as criminals attitude is not even close to new. It started off as an overt attitude, then became covert for a long time. Now that the spectre of socialism is no longer haunting the world the powers that be don't feel threatened any more, so it has become overt again. Just read Dickens or historical accounts of that era and the preceding couple of centuries and you'll find plenty of examples.

    The mind-set of managers seems to be that employees are a company asset and that they own the…

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  7. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    There seems to a consensus, so far, among the posters on this article, that the infrastructure, for a totalitarian system of surveillance of society, has already been installed in the workplaces of the nation.
    The final denouement of democratic freedom might come with the election of an equally totalitarian government, in league with the "organised" actual criminals to, in effect, criminalise the entire community.
    The price of freedom might be eternal vigilance or eternal paranoia.
    Whatever it takes!

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    1. Brad Adams

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to James Hill

      Chomsky has made the point that you don't need a totalitarian government if can "manufacture consent."

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    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Brad Adams

      I suppose there has been a large "productivity increase" on that manufacturing front in the MSM, lately.

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    3. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to James Hill

      " Whatever it takes! "
      Sort of like burning the candle at both ends instead of midnight oil or then needing it as Peter would add.

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  8. Thomas Fields

    "progressive" watcher

    Surveillance of workers is nothing new (how does your boss even know you're doing your job correctly and efficiently without you being surveyed?). Electronic tagging is merely a more efficient way to survey. Maybe Amazon employees have a history of inefficiency?

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  9. Judith Olney

    Ms

    I'm beginning to think that business leaders and politicians are so caught up in their narrow world of "the economy", and the drive to criminalise workers, and any collective worker's organisation, that they fail to see the consequences of these policies. They obviously don't read any history, or are blind to the patterns that have occurred over the centuries. Or perhaps they think they can do enough to keep people in competition with each other, but not quite enough to reach the tipping point of…

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Judith Olney

      " caught up in their narrow world "
      It is really our world Judith and how great would it be to have all those sailing clipper ships of yesteryears again plying the oceans.
      But yes, it does near seem the planet has its cycles and I myself wonder for just how long we can keep treading water before more and greater economic collapse.

      I do not think you will ever stop greed for it exists in people even wanting to get a better crop out of their own gardening efforts and unfortunately with the greater economic environment and depletion of resources there will be austerity for endless borrowings are not sustainable.

      Rather than just business leaders and politicians being responsible for unsustainable decisions they are merely responding to the planets cumulative greed.

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    2. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Greg North

      You've missed my meaning Greg, and I don't know why you mentioned sailing clippers.

      I disagree with you that business leaders and politicians are responding to "the planets cumulative greed", they are central to creating the greed.

      Austerity is a problem when it is only applied to the poor and working class, as it has been in every country that has gone down this path.

      It doesn't have to be this way, but we live in a world out of balance, and there will be a correction.

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    3. margaret m

      old lady

      In reply to Judith Olney

      I think I agree with you it is a shame we do not have a robust media a deliver of facts and factors. The ABC once challenged the politicians too little and not very often do we see anything remotely looking like the old ABC of the past sadly no.

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    4. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Judith Olney

      " You've missed my meaning Greg, and I don't know why you mentioned sailing clippers. "
      You did mention patterns over centuries Judith and whatever the patterns, as a planet and as a life form we continue to evolve, gaining some good and losing some - the clippers I would put as all good - environmental, slower pace of life and employment.

      It is a bit much to lay blame for creating greed anywhere for it is so widespread, all be it at very different levels and in many different ways, it is also…

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    5. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Greg North

      Oh the will be balance, there will be a snap back to the centre. That is how it works.

      Your view is narrow Greg, you look at the small picture, but that actually doesn't matter.

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    6. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to margaret m

      It is a shame Margaret, but the change is coming, you only need to look at history and nature, to see the pattern.

      It amazes me that there are so many people around that don't look at human history and see that all this has happened before.

      When people become greedy and selfish, and politics moves too far from the centre, its like stretching a rubber band, it can be stretched by it will snap back. We are almost at that point across the world, although we have a little be more stretch left in Australia, before the snap back.

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  10. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Criminalisation of the workforce!
    A bit rich that comment would seem to be.

    The electronic tagging or more correctly the use of electronic navigational devices is really quite sensible in such a huge warehouse for you can imagine the chaos by just thinking how it is in Bunnings or any supermarket for personal shopping if you cannot read the overhead signs.
    At least Bunnings have them in pretty big letters.

    Online shopping is certainly viewed as the new way for many products, solely because…

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  11. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Economies of scale encouraging inhumane electronic panopticons to render workers into robotized rats on wheels under an unbalanced ethos (of profit maximization at all costs) in this "performance management culture". Amazon CEO/Big Brother himself Jeff Bezos even agrees "performance expectations" at these "(order)fulfilment centres" tend towards "robotization of the human worker". A Rugely councillor complains of Amazon's "intransigence with supplying employment data to the local council". The…

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Pat Moore

      " Amazon CEO/Big Brother himself Jeff Bezos even agrees "performance expectations" at these "(order)fulfilment centres" tend towards "robotization of the human worker".
      Words are just how something is described Pat and you could just as easily put it that in remaining viable Amazon has to compete in being a product supplier to the extent that first up there is always going to need to be a return on investment of sufficient level to repay the investment capital with interest added, just like any…

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    2. Pat Moore

      gardener

      In reply to Greg North

      Greg, My point was NOT TO HAVE a "global marketing organization" in the first place. To think outside of the box towards localization of the necessities of life and conscious movement towards an anticonsumerism, refusal of unnecessary, biosphere-destructive junk. The necessity for humanity to take back its biological integrity from this market place gone mad which is designed to exploit and to create false demand.

      The capitalist system is the problem obviously, especially a globalized capitalist…

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    3. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Pat Moore

      A digression from a good argument, sorry, but there is an inexpensive "adaptable" industrial robot which looks to be very good for the disabled.
      And small industrial enterprises competing against those globalised slaves you mention.
      Somewhere on the BBC website.

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    4. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Pat Moore

      That robotisation, derived from a slavic word for a slave, was written up in The New Scientist, in the early 1980's, as creating stress related diseases such as strokes and heart failure in its victims, easily measurable before the event by simple, routine blood tests for recognised distress hormones such as cortisone.
      The results of all those nasty, vivisectionist experiments done onlaboratory animals in the 1950's did not go to waste.
      This should come under the proactive prevention measures of the various Occupational Health and Safety Acts, but sadly, obtuse magistrates (with humanities educations) have been notorious in their self-indulgent failure to compensate for their ignorance, when "supposedly" responsibly judging these matters.
      So the abuse continues...

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  12. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    This seems to be a result of an oversupply of labour, which means workers have few or no rights, and become treated as arms and legs only.

    The workers have to do as they are told, or the company finds someone who will.

    Our country is quickly heading down the track of oversupply of labour.

    For example, the coalition has plans to increase jobs by 1 million in 5 years, but the country will have increased its population by about 1.5 million people in 5 years, if the country continues with its current population increase.

    If the population continues growing at its current rate, we will lose our natural environment, live in tiny but expensive boxes, and also become slaves to large corporations who will tell their workforce what to do and when to do it, or else.

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  13. Tracy Heiss

    logged in via Facebook

    If I worked at Amazon I'd get together with work mates and have each other take turns to carry the devices. One person works like clockwork, but holds three devices. The other two kick back and have a day off. Got to be some way to beat them at their own game!!

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  14. Ian J. Faulks

    NRMA-ACT Road Safety Trust Research Scholar, Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety (CARRS-Q) at Queensland University of Technology

    An excellent article, Anthony.
    Perhaps the simplest solution to abuses of the kind that you and Zoe Williams have discussed is for legislative change that requires the monitor (company, or other organisation) to use the technology only for safety, for security, or for research and development activities, and not for "performance monitoring".
    Such conditions on use have been applied successfully in the areas where I work: transport safety, and law enforcement; but the law and policies regarding use must be carefully formulated to stop abuse, bullying and intimidatory behaviours.

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  15. Richard Helmer

    REsearch Engineer

    without growth in humanities interests then the end game of productivity may well be a very large non-working populace. ... even if employed, a perception [or reality] of gross inequality leads to trouble... one way or another, people need to share a worthwhile existence

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  16. Robert J. Thomas, Sr.

    Retired corporate counsel

    Just another story to support the proposition that the only moral type of business organization is the true cooperative.

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  17. Thomas Fields

    "progressive" watcher

    Gauging from the comments, the romantic fantasy that one's labour ought to be pristine and treated like a special snowflake still lives on. I thought this idea died out after a few million were killed in the socialist revolutions? Guess not. You learn something everyday.

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  18. Mark Bean

    Reader

    To get another perspective, it might be worth noting that Amazon will doubtlessly purchase robots to perform the tasks mentioned in the article as soon as they become cost-effective.

    Surely it is obvious that they will do this regardless of any reforms relating specifically to the treatment of their human workers.

    With robots doing the work, Amazon avoids mis-treating their workers, and will enjoy overall improved performance in their warehouses. It is a win for Amazon and any company who can afford robots.

    The workers won't have work, though, and that makes me think there is a bigger problem here than the article suggests.

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