Work becomes more like prison

Supermarket chain TESCO is one of a few companies that use high-tech surveillance to track employee productivity

Published February 19, 2013 6:34PM (EST)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

The human body, with its need for rest, nutrition and hydration, is such an inefficient tool for capitalist production. But while machines are unlikely to replace human workers anytime soon, new technologies can deftly strip workers of their humanity!

The Irish Independent reports that grocery giant TESCO has strapped electronic armbands to their warehouse workers to measure their productivity, tracking their actions so closely that management knows when they briefly pause to drink from a water fountain or take a bathroom break. These unforgivable lapses in productivity impact workers' performance score, which management then apparently uses to terrify them into working faster.
"The devices give a set amount of time for a task, such as 20 minutes to load packets of soft drinks. If they did it in 20 minutes, they would get 100pc, but would get 200pc if they were twice as fast," writes the Independent. Although TESCO denied that bathroom breaks impact productivity scores, one former staffer the Independent spoke with said he got a "surprisingly lower" score when he took a bathroom break.
"Sometimes, management would call staff to an office and tell them they had to do better if their scores were low."
"I had really easy assignments and when I'd come back after a break, I would get a horrendous score and wonder why," he said.
He added that since the introduction of the device workers faced increasing pressure to produce more and more.

But working people close to death has some downsides for companies. Studies show that work stress is linked to physical and mental ailments, from sleep deprivation to chronic disease. In the end, stressed, sick workers saddle companies both with rising health costs (for those that actually pay for employee health expenses) and the costs of high turnover.

According to the CDC, excessive workloads and changing demands are the biggest triggers of work stress.

Using machines to extract as much labor as humanely possible from workers has a long history. (Even the clock has ignobly served as a tool of managerial abuse -- in some industrial towns factory owners were known to change the town clock to cheat workers out of time off.)  As surveillance technology advances, companies can increasingly track all aspects of their workers' time and activity. Frederick Taylor -- who pioneered the idea of parsing worker time down to seconds -- and Henry Ford would be jealous.

In the 1980s, computer technology opened up previously undreamed of ways of monitoring workers. Keystroke programs could track the typing speed of recepionists and other clerical workers throughout the day. These days many places of employment -- particularly low-wage workplaces -- have found even more sophisticated ways to panic employees by tracking their every move for lapses in productivity.

In SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance Society, John Gilliom and Torin Monahan talk about encountering a frantic hotel maid who told them she had to alert management every time she cleaned a room, so they could track how many she finished and how fast. A new phone app can be used to constantly measure speed and location. "If workers stand still or sit down for even a few seconds, management knows," write Gilliom and Monahan.

Call centers also nightmarishly try to control every second of employees' time. At the Time Warner Cable call center, Gilliom writes, employees have only 8 seconds to get their paperwork done between calls. Calls are also recorded to later gauge employee helpfulness and friendliness when dealing with customers.

AlterNet has previously reported on biometric time clocks and fingerprint readers, which use iris scans, face recognition technology and digital fingerprints to more closely track when employees come in and out of work and the duration of their breaks. Unlike punch cards or key codes -- which allow employees to cover for each, by letting them punch in tardy co-workers -- using unique physical attributes like eyes or fingerprints ensures workers cannot shave a minute or two from their workday without management knowing and keeping a record.

Service workers also often toil under the watchful eye of surveillance cameras that managers can either view in real time or record. 

But increased surveillance not only creates a more stressful workplace for workers, it also effects the product, Gilliom points out. For example, nurses are no longer taking the time to get to know their patients because hospitals make more money when more people are hustled through. In the past, nurses had ways to circumvent hospital pressure. Now, electronic tracking of patient movement means that medical profressionals will spend far less time with you when you are sick.

By Tana Ganeva

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