The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Employers’ new tools to surveil and monitor workers are historically rooted

Technology has just made century-old methods more efficient and widespread.

Workers pack and ship customer orders at the 750,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in 2017 in Romeoville, Ill. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated and exposed poor working conditions in many sectors. The recent unionization drive among Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., is just one example of frustrations expressed by a large swath of gig and factory workers about worsening conditions, including a lack of health and safety precautions, minimal to nonexistent toilet breaks and wages that fail to reflect the essential services these workers deliver.

Yet the chief driver of these frustrations — and the most durable feature in the history of factory design — are the surveillance mechanisms by which tech giants like Amazon, Uber, Instacart, Deliveroo and others monitor, measure and weaponize time against workers on and off the job. And though working-class, immigrant workers and workers of color bear the brunt of surveillance technologies, a pandemic-enforced work-from-home culture has shown that no workers are immune. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The history of worker surveillance shows that today’s cutting-edge time-tracking technologies are just new iterations of an old industrial technique — only now, these technologies are more discreet and pervasive. This enables employers to collect information from anywhere and make decisions that risk deepening the same race- and class-based inequities that stretch back to the industrial era.

Worker surveillance was borne out of an economic problem that vexed industrialists of the past century: what they called the “problem of wasted time.”

Until the second industrial revolution in the late-19th century, production was largely in the hands of skilled craftsmen who fashioned goods at their own pace. The transition from hand production to machines was far from smooth, however. Human-paced tempos slowed production lines, and long working hours led to burnout and high worker turnover. As workers and unions began to win the right to shorten shifts from 10 to eight hours across the United States, industrialists turned their factory floors over to scientific managers to increase worker output in a shorter window of time.

In the early 1900s, business efficiency strategists like Fredrick Winslow Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth used film and photography to study human movement to measure and reduce the time it took to do tasks. The Gilbreths attached small bulbs to workers’ fingertips and used slow-motion photographs to capture streaks of light that would help engineer a shorter, faster way to move from point A to B. Taylor advocated for total surveillance; he thought that the unobserved worker was an altogether inefficient one.

The resulting “innovations” laid out a blueprint for factories to maximize efficiency and minimize worker autonomy under the watchful eye of managers.

Auto titan Henry Ford was enamored with Taylor’s ideas, and he was so dedicated to finding the perfect balance between the worker and the machine that, in 1914, he created an in-house motion picture studio to observe and eliminate wasted time among workers. He hired Detroit architect Albert Kahn to custom-fit assembly lines around the body to limit unnecessary movement. Every minute counted: By 1915, lunch breaks were cut down to three minutes a day, the company was producing cars at 30 times its 1909 output, and the cost of the Model T dropped by more than half.

Ford even extended his surveillance from the factory floor to homes for immigrant workers. In line with Progressive Era measures to temper “threats” of immigration after World War I, Ford used home visits to keep tabs on whether addresses were current, and whether immigrants spoke English and were clean and thrifty. Middle management, mostly White men, were instructed to surveil homes and factory floors to speed up (mainly immigrant and Black) workers and break up fraternizing for fear of unionizing.

Ian Thibodeau, a spokesperson for the Ford Motor Co., noted that the programs were implemented “in a very different time.” Along with “higher wages,” he said, these other initiatives “were designed to provide better health and safety — in the workplace and for employee families — and support the assimilation of migrants to their new city and, often, new country.”

Though social programs were “motivated by altruism,” the company ultimately discontinued them around 1921, according to Thibodeau. However, while such programs were officially discontinued, monitoring and union-busting tactics continued in a more muted fashion under the leadership of Ford loyalist Harry Bennett until the mid-1940s.

While it’s true that Ford’s promise of a basic wage and access to profit-sharing drew workers to the company, these benefits were contingent on timesaving behaviors, which were famously detrimental to workers. The condition known as “Forditis,” popularly depicted by Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” in 1936, was a repetitive motion disorder caused by the unrelenting pace of the assembly line.

Still, the “Ford Way” established a classist and racist legacy of worker surveillance that persisted beyond the Industrial Age. In a recent HBO segment, John Oliver detailed the breakneck speeds at which workers debone and cut up hogs and chickens at meatpacking plants today. Maximum allowable line speeds, he reported, have doubled since 1979 with workers averaging 35 to 45 birds per minute. In plants like these, common complaints include a lack of bathroom breaks and knife wounds from neighboring line workers — which are underreported since about a third of workers in the meat industry are immigrants who fear losing their jobs or deportation.

Although the surveillance and punishment of “wasted time” on the factory floor has remained fairly consistent over the past century, the way workers’ time gets tracked and recorded has become more invasive due to advancements in technology.

Today apps and wearable technologies have replaced the old-fashion eye. Wisconsin-based Three Square Market even implanted microchips into the “willing hands” of employees for efficiency in personal identification and payment. Some Britain-based employers are encouraging their workers to wear a Moodbeam One wristband, which, according to the company, provides “a unique insight into the emotional well-being of the wearer … without the need to ask.” Apple recently mandated use of surveillance cameras at the bottom end of its supply chain and increased use of facial scanning for factory workers to account for theft of intellectual property and time.

A 2020 study by the Open Markets Institute found that Amazon relies on an “extensive worker surveillance infrastructure,” including an AI-enabled camera in Prime vehicles, wristbands, thermal cameras, security cameras and intelligence analysts. The report claims this surveillance has “an impact on workers’ ability to advocate for better working conditions and push for collective action.” Amazon denies this charge, stating that the infrastructure is used to measure employee performance against basic expectations: “We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

These measures have also spilled over into our homes thanks to the use of “bossware,” or digital supervision software used to monitor professionals, teachers and students now working and learning from home. One educator described proctoring software as being “billed as a lesson-capture technology but [is] more like a full-service panopticon.” Depending on the product installed, software can measure levels of attention based on eye-tracking, report student behavior back to instructors, record key strokes and location and even dock employee pay if computers remain idle for too long.

This shift of surveillance technologies from the factory floor into our living rooms illustrates how the scale and precision of time-tracking technology has adapted to the changing nature of capitalism. While privacy and legal protections for workers against the collection of big data through cameras, wearable technology, apps and biometric surveillance are still hazy, these systems have been shown to chill union organizing for fear of retribution or loss of employment — as has been documented with Instacart and Amazon, among others.

Workers themselves, however, are challenging algorithmic surveillance in creative ways. Two DoorDash drivers started the #DeclineNow forum, which tricks the company’s software by turning down the lowest-paying deliveries so the algorithm will automatically raise pay rates. Other gig workers are building their own apps to check the math on company-made algorithms that erroneously track time and distance. Artists are experimenting with clothing, textiles and anti-surveillance designs to combat facial recognition systems that disproportionately affect people of color in the workplace and on the streets.

Despite all this, the design of Industrial-era time-tracking and surveillance has stood the test of time, because it has served a profitable purpose: meeting the bottom line even at the expense of dehumanizing workers. If the logic of surveillance capitalism, where every major platform can collect, track and monetize user data — with or without consent — is applied to the collection of worker data, it is even more egregious. This theft of humanity is everywhere in our working worlds, yet it is detrimental to the most precarious among us — and this is something we are seeing come into clear view with the pandemic.