In the increasingly digitised world of work, surveillance has taken on a new dimension. It’s no longer just about security cameras in warehouses or retail outlets to prevent theft or ensure productivity. The scope of workplace surveillance has expanded, becoming more pervasive and intrusive, and it’s affecting workers across all sectors.
Consider the daily routine of a hypothetical employee, let’s call her Rina, at an Amazon warehouse. She swipes her employee ID to enter the facility, and sensors track her movements throughout the day. Her workstation is equipped with scanners that meticulously measure her pace as she inspects 1,800 items being shipped out every hour. Any break she takes that is not mandated, including bathroom breaks, is monitored as “time off task”. At the end of her shift, she undergoes anti-theft screenings before she can leave the facility.
This level of surveillance is not limited to large corporations or specific industries. It’s become an integral part of the tools and systems employees use daily across various sectors. For instance, software programs can capture keystrokes and allow employers to remotely view the websites their employees visit. Handheld scanners are used by workers ranging from retail clerks to hospital nurses, and phone-based apps are used by home health aides to log in and out of each client visit.
Companies are even using technology that records facial expressions and tone of voice for “mood and sentiment analysis” to gauge employees’ attitudes. In white-collar jobs, AI-powered email and message analysis is used to assess workplace culture. In offshore call centres, predictive conversation scripts are used to judge how well employees handle customer complaints.
While these innovations are often presented as ways to create a more efficient workplace, they also pose significant threats to employee privacy and autonomy. Two organisations, Coworker and Data and Society’s Labor Futures Initiative, released separate reports in 2021 highlighting the increased use of employer surveillance technologies over the past five years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The shift to remote work led many employers to require workers to install various forms of “bossware” on their home computers. Some even mandated that remote workers keep their computer cameras and microphones on at all times during the workday. Others introduced health-focused apps and tools that track everything from step count and heart rate to sleep patterns and screen time.
In industries that require physical presence, workers were subjected to mandatory health screenings, including temperature checks and social distancing sensors. However, these measures often did not provide adequate protection against the pandemic.
The reports revealed that vast amounts of worker data are being tracked across many industries, sometimes without employees’ full informed or free consent. For instance, Walmart employees were asked to install an app on their personal phones to check inventory, but the app required always-on access to the phone’s camera and location services.
The introduction of these technologies into the workplace is largely driven by hundreds of small companies and vendors, not just the handful of “big tech” companies that dominate social media. These “little tech” corporations are digitising all aspects of employment, from recruitment to productivity and risk monitoring.
This trend is harming workers in several ways: by increasing the potential for discrimination; by making it easier for employers to surveil their workers; by undermining privacy and collective organising rights; by economically exploiting workers; by commodifying workers’ data; and by blurring the line between home and work, making it harder for workers to disconnect from their jobs.
For those who feel their privacy is being violated, hiring a private investigator in Melbourne or a Melbourne detective service might be a viable option. A Melbourne surveillance contractor or a private investigator in Victoria can help uncover any unethical practices or breaches of privacy rights.
The rise in workplace surveillance is not just an invasive business practice. It’s an operating principle designed to control workers and maximise profits. This is particularly harmful for the most vulnerable workers, including workers of colour, women, non-binary individuals, and immigrants.
As we continue to navigate the digital age, it’s crucial to strike a balance between leveraging technology for efficiency and respecting employee privacy and autonomy. The future of work should not be a dystopian landscape of pervasive surveillance and control.