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Worker Surveillance Is on the Rise, and Has Its Roots in Centuries of Racism

Plantation owners were determined to extract every last bit of labor they could get from enslaved workers, meticulously tracking, documenting, and analyzing their every move in order to maximize productivity and profit.

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As technology advances, so do the ever-watching eyes of the world’s largest companies. High-tech workplace surveillance is troubling to workers who are organizing for a union and now have to work around not just management, but also seemingly omniscient machines. But as public conversation around workplace technology focuses on automation, a whole realm of technology is being developed so that companies can surveil their workers in order to manage their productivity, make hiring and promotion decisions, and even predict their health outcomes.

According to a recent Business Insider report, Amazon-owned Whole Foods is now using an interactive “heat map” to track unionization risk. The surveillance tool uses a simple yet invasive methodology to see how likely employees are to organize for better working conditions. The heat map is used to monitor more than 95,000 employees in over 510 stores. As Hayley Peterson reports:

The stores’ individual risk scores are calculated from more than two dozen metrics, including employee “loyalty,” turnover, and racial diversity; “tipline” calls to human resources; proximity to a union office; and violations recorded by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The map also tracks local economic and demographic factors such as the unemployment rate in a store’s location and the percentage of families in the area living below the poverty line.

This is particularly relevant as companies and governments ramp up surveillance efforts in response to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the largest nationwide uprising since the 1960s. In such a critical moment, it is worth understanding the racialized history of workplace surveillance and its use as a tool to quell collective organizing.

Companies Already Spied on Low-Wage Workers Using Advanced Technology

In 2013 Nordstrom came under fire for employing tracking technology on customers. Automatically connecting to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled phones, the company collected individual MAC addresses (your device’s fingerprint) which are then indefinitely stored in the company’s servers. Less known, however, is that Nordstrom was also using that technology on their employees. Euclid Analytics, the company contracted by Nordstrom in 2013 and later acquired by WeWork in 2019, offers spatial analytics technology that promises to watch employee behavior and make them more productive.

RetailNext, based in San Jose, California, is another firm that develops technologies for bosses to spy on their workers. The company sells technologies that enable big retailers to collect and analyze data from their workers. Utilizing a technique called “direction mapping,” RetailNext-contracted companies can analyze how their employees move and behave in the store, and how they interact with customers. Employers can combine this tool with “frequent high-resolution snapshots” to see how products and assets are placed throughout the store while also capturing employees throughout their daily workflow. According to its website, Ulta, Sephora and Bloomingdales are among the many retailers using these technologies.

At least one Sprouts Farmers Market location installed a similar technology. “Every time you clocked in, you had to look into a camera and it would take a picture of you and that would be your evidence of clocking in,” said Paul Packer* who is employed by Sprouts in Whittier, California. One of his co-workers allegedly filed a lawsuit against the company for its use of the technology in the store. “There was a lawsuit pending, because it [facial-recognition technology] was taking photos of people, and since there were people in the background of the photos, technically they were using them without people’s consent,” Packer said. He told Truthout that rumors circulated about the camera recording at all times, but it was impossible to know because employees are not privy to information about the surveillance technologies used on them.

There are several other firms that offer high-tech tools to track and collect data on workers. Walmart, for instance, purchased technology from Everseen AI that uses facial recognition technology to identify workers, customers and even stocked items. In 2017 Walmart installed Everseen AI’s facial recognition technology in at least 1,000 stores in the United States alone.

Particularly troubling is the intention behind worker surveillance. Believing workers are inherently untrustworthy, bosses spend big money on surveillance technologies aimed at monitoring their workers’ every move. Alan O’Herlihy, Everseen AI’s founder, states that the impetus for founding the company is based in his distrust for his own employees, recalling that his dad’s grocery store “experienced so much loss over the years that we even joke that one of our cashiers built a house with the money they stole.” As for the AI technology itself, O’Herlihy said it “becomes smarter over time, learning the specifics of each individual store it’s in,” including the spatial layout of the store, customer shopping patterns and employee behavior. Despite O’Herlihy’s claims, Walmart employees privately emailed journalists at WIRED in January 2020 denouncing the technology and showing evidence that it was flawed and produced false results.

Due to advances in workplace technology following World War II, the productivity of the workforce has skyrocketed. Yet wages grew to a lesser extent until 1973, when output soared and wages stagnated even further. Since 1978, CEOs’ salaries have increased by 970 percent, making nearly 300 times more than their average worker. While companies are increasing their profit with these technologies, workers aren’t seeing any corresponding increase in their wages. Instead, those profits are going directly into the pockets of corporate executives.

Tracking Technology, Like Union Busting, Is Never Race-Neutral

A second group of metrics collected by Whole Foods measures factors that the company believes predisposes workers to unionization efforts. Those metrics include a “diversity index” that ranks racial and ethnic diversity per store. According to the company, the lower the diversity, the higher the risk of unionizing. While this might seem shocking at first glance, corporations actually have a rich history of exploiting racial difference to break worker solidarity and bust unions. It is no surprise then, that companies build off of internalized racial prejudices to prevent workers from taking collective action.

Dianne Feeley describes the fight between Henry Ford and the autoworkers in Detroit who attempted to unionize and win better working conditions. Although other auto-manufacturing companies unionized earlier, Ford was able to fend the union off until 1941. “Determined to combat the rising labor militancy that challenged the open shop,” Feeley notes, “he hired Harry Bennett to direct Ford Motor Company’s Service Department, which was responsible for the surveillance of workers.” They were surveilling workers not just to make them more productive, but also to crush any effort of collective organization.

At the time, auto manufacturing companies didn’t hire Black workers. Capitalizing off that crisis, Ford Motor Company hired a mass of Black workers they hoped would be willing to work for less pay and in harsher and more dangerous conditions than their white co-workers. Their second, and most important, motive was to break the union effort that was bubbling among the previously all-white workforce. At first, it worked. The union effort was stunted and Black workers saw an 11 percent negative pay differential between their white counterparts. Eventually, however, Black and white workers stood together and won their union, signing their first contract in 1941.

Workplace Surveillance Has Its Roots in Slavery and the Modern State

In 1750, wealthy slave owners in Jamaica and Barbados would meticulously track and manage enslaved workers in order to maximize their productive output. What business schools today call “scientific management” actually has its very roots in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Plantation owners were determined to extract every last bit of labor they could get from enslaved workers, meticulously tracking, documenting, and analyzing their every move in order to maximize productivity and profit. According to Harvard Business School researcher Caitlin Rosenthal, these techniques were then adopted widely in the United States after a slave owner named Thomas Affleck advanced those surveillance techniques to include “sophisticated calculations” that “measure productivity in a standardized way,” thus allowing “planters to determine how far they could push their workers to get the most profit.” After years of capitalist development, the plantation owners and capitalist executives of today are armed with more intelligent technology that can, in a millisecond, do what Affleck once did with only his eyes and a hand-written spreadsheet. High-tech corporate monitoring of workers today undoubtedly stems from this legacy of meticulous and detailed tracking of enslaved workers in order to extract the most profit from them, and to quell potential rebellion and collective action.

Just as slavery is enmeshed with the state from its chattel form up to today’s prison form, ubiquitous surveillance has also long been practiced by the state. Rob Lucas notes that since its beginning, “the modern state was an information-gathering apparatus,” and that “once mechanical and then electronic means of data storage and processing became available, they merely facilitated what had already long been happening.”

The automation of data processing — a staple practice in modern management’s ability to surveil the workforce — actually descended from the Hollerith punch card which was used not only in Nazi concentration camps but also in U.S.-operated Japanese-American internment camps. “Computer-based surveillance,” Lucas explains, “per se has roots in this longue durée history, which is helpful to keep in view when attempting to periodize developments closer to the present.”

Surveillance technology did not create the desire to track and manage workers. That impulse existed since the formation of a class society where one group owns the means of production and is responsible for extracting value from another group — namely, their workers. In that kind of economic system — where growth is synonymous with survival — bosses necessarily have to use all the tools at their disposal to extract as much productivity and value as possible from their workers. The advancement in surveillance and algorithmic technology has only fanned the flame of capitalist desire, allowing surveillance to permeate every minute detail of a worker’s life.

Solutions

Unions have been able to win some regulation of surveillance technology in their contracts, such as “right-to-know” clauses which mandate that companies inform workers how they are being monitored and what data is being collected. However, those protections are few and far between, and the majority of workers have no legal right to know how they are being tracked, much less have any say over the technologies being employed on them. In 2018, California passed a landmark consumer and worker privacy bill called the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). The CCPA outlined several privacy and data protections for workers and consumers, although in 2019, a tech industry-backed bill attempted to remove workers from the CCPA and ultimately succeeded in exempting employees from the bill’s purview until January 2021. Still, the majority of union and non-union workers have no agency over what technologies are used on them.

So what can be done about it now? One proposal is to win legal rights for workers to democratically control the technologies used in their workplace. This would mean being able to ban invasive tools like facial-recognition technology outright, and being able to regulate the use of algorithms in decision-making. It could also mean designating algorithmic union-busting tools such as those used by Whole Foods as an unfair labor practice, which would make invasive surveillance illegal under the National Labor Relations Act and allow the National Labor Relations Board to investigate and remedy violations. Such rights would make the case for democratic worker control over more aspects of their work. This decision-making could take place at the level of sectoral bargaining, so that workers are able to set standards across industries, rather than just in their own shop. “If we’re going to make these technologies work for workers rather than harm them, we’re going to have to figure out the question of governance,” said Dr. Annette Bernhardt, director of the Low-Wage Work Program at the University of California, Berkeley. “Workers need to have a direct say over which technologies are used, to which ends, whether it’s through collective bargaining or legislation or new mechanisms we haven’t dreamed of yet.”

With the spread of COVID-19, tech companies are taking advantage of the crisis to sell technology such as tracking bracelets — which were originally developed for use by police — to businesses to better track their workers’ whereabouts. The state and private corporations have become so intertwined that to regulate the use of technology in one area would necessitate a whole societal shift. On the other hand, any long-term solution needs to address the root causes of intrusive worker surveillance and scientific management. That would require a deep look into the reason why bosses are so motivated to extract every last drop of profit from their workers, and why chattel slavery still exerts influence over our working conditions and industries today. As long as our society is organized around an ever-increasing thirst for profit, companies like Whole Foods will continue to surveil workers to break their solidarity and place them under increasingly invasive monitoring and control.

* The worker requested a pseudonym due to the recent uptick in retaliation against whistleblowers.

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