Amazon’s JFK8 Warehouse (October 14th, 2020)

Put Workers over Profits: End Worker Surveillance

Farhiyo Warsame, a warehouse worker, was targeted, surveilled, and fired by Amazon after speaking up about unsafe conditions at work, according to the Awood Center. Amazon tracked Farhiyo’s time in between each small task and used the accumulated extra seconds to justify threats for her eventual termination. Through this “rate” and “time off task” tracking system, Amazon would have you believe it monitors work productivity — but in reality, this system is used to control the physical movements of workers, dictate when or if they can use the bathroom, discipline workers and, in the end, has been used repeatedly to retaliate against workers. It enforces an unreasonable pace of work that leads to the unusually high number of injuries at Amazon.

Today, workers are subjected to an unprecedented level of workplace surveillance and control. From voice monitoring to tracking applications, these systems are being introduced into workplaces that are already stacked against low-wage workers, creating an environment ripe for exploitation. Surveillance gives corporations more power over workers. When combined with automation that dictates the pace and type of work, it results in a more dangerous, punishing, and precarious workplace. It can also lead to lower wages, deskilling of jobs, mental health stresses, the potential for racial discrimination, and a chilling effect on organizing. Workers urgently need legal protections that prevent these harms and end exploitative practices, including Amazon’s rate and time off task monitoring.

The use of surveillance to exploit workers has a long history in the United States, going back to the plantation and then in manufacturing, where Taylorism and other systems of “scientific management” established control over workers’ every move. The trend has worsened dramatically in recent years, and laws and regulatory agencies have failed to catch up.

Meanwhile, with few protections for workers, corporate employers have been able to grow profits by demanding and enforcing dangerous speeds, controlling each physical movement of a worker, and maximizing opportunities to make workers replaceable and expendable.

New technologies that monitor and control workers represent a radical transfer of power from workers to corporations. At Amazon warehouses, workers report that a scanner tells you exactly where to go, gives you seconds to get there, and then orders you what to do next. Your entire workload and every task you complete is managed in seconds. If you take longer than the seconds you are given, the time is added to your time off task. If you go to the bathroom or take a rest, this is also added to time off task. At the end of the day, if your productivity falls below a moving threshold, you are disciplined, and eventually fired.

Amazon’s contract delivery drivers face similar monitoring, with dispatchers pressuring drivers to deliver increasing volumes of packages in a single shift — even if that means drivers must speed or skip bathroom breaks to meet delivery quotas. At Amazon, this is paired with intelligence systems and practices to monitor potential organizing activity outside of work.

This level of monitoring and control has no place in our economy. Corporate employers say that these technologies make workplaces more efficient and are necessary to be competitive, but those claims do not hold up to scrutiny. Instead, we find:

  1. Individual productivity monitoring is used to enforce a dangerous pace of work. Within Amazon warehouses, the pervasive and punitive nature of tracking rate and time off task for each worker results in nearly double the injury rate and greater job precarity, as compared to the sector. While Amazon claimed that they stopped disciplining workers for productivity during the pandemic, the practice continued. This type of monitoring is designed for workers to fail.

During the pandemic, corporate employers have expanded workplace surveillance in ways that can compromise worker privacy and autonomy, and are using those tools for worker discipline and control. Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe working place (e.g. by slowing work speeds and providing handwashing breaks). Instead, Amazon developed a punitive social distance surveillance system that it gave to other corporate employers.

In response, state and federal governments should enact protections against workplace surveillance — ending predatory practices, such as Amazon’s rate and time off task monitoring. These protections should prioritize worker health and safety, fortify the rights of workers to speak out and organize, guard against low-road business models, require transparency in the use of new technologies, protect against new forms of tech-driven racial discrimination, and incentivize innovation that enhances worker well-being. Workers deserve better than models of exploitation developed on plantations and in factories over one hundred years ago.

In Solidarity,

Athena

Action Center on Race and the Economy

The Awood Center

Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law

Civil Liberties Defense Center

Color of Change

Constitutional Alliance

Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)

Coworker.org

Demand Progress

Demos

Fight for the Future

Free Press

Government Accountability Project

Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition

Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California

Jobs With Justice

Just Futures Law

LAANE

Make the Road New York

Media Mobilizing Project

MediaJustice

MPower Change

National Employment Law Project

New America’s Open Technology Institute

New York Communities For Change

Open Markets Institute

Our Data Bodies

Partnership for Working Families

Public Citizen

Restore The Fourth Minnesota

RootsAction.org

Secure Justice

SEIU California

Stand Up Nashville

SumOfUs

Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.)

United for Respect

Warehouse Worker Resource Center

Working Partnerships USA

X-Lab

Athena is a coalition working together to break the dangerous stranglehold of corporate power over our democracy, economy, and planet. @athenaforall