Take back technology

Technology is putting workers under greater surveillance and stress. But it can also empower.

Think about our average working day. How many of your interactions and encounters are mediated by technology? From email, to Skype, to Slack, it’s hard to imagine work being possible without the range of tools provided by our computers and smartphones. While this has brought about amazing benefits, it is also changing how power and accountability between workers and firms is configured. As part of the first phase of an 18-month project into the gig economy, we mapped the ways in which technology is changing the nature of work. Here are some of our key findings.

Technology is extending the scale of workplace surveillance

As computers and smartphones are used for more aspects of work, the space for surveillance has grown, with data gathered on ever more aspects of our working lives. A study of US workplaces found that 43% of firms monitor email and 45% log employees’ keystrokes, with AI increasingly used to scan this data for potential malpractice and misconduct.

Forms of wearable technology allow surveillance to move to the body itself, with the number of wearables given out by employers set to reach 500 million by 2021. These are used heavily within UK warehouses, with GPS data gathered on a person’s location and used to monitor the speed and efficiency of workers. Other forms of wearables look to the body itself and measure aspects such as fitness, stress and fatigue.

But while the positive benefits of workplace surveillance are felt almost entirely by management, the negative benefits are born by the workers, including increased stress levels and an increase in workplace injuries, with, on average, one ambulance called every week to some Amazon warehouses in Scotland.

Algorithms are reconfiguring accountability between firms and workers

Algorithmic management is when a company automates a role previously held by a human manager, replacing this role with a computer system following practices embedded within computer algorithms. From distributing rides to Uber drivers, to analyzing CVs, to producing heat-maps of areas at risk of high crime, algorithmic management is permeating huge sections of our economy.

Algorithmic management holds the promise of offering a fairer means of management, free from many of our own internal bias. In recruitment, for example, it offers the potential to remove the bias towards hiring those who reflect ourselves. Within logistics it limits the ability of managers to give the best work to their friend. But when different workplace practices are subsumed within opaque computer systems the process by which different decisions are made is hidden, creating knowledge asymmetries as workers struggle to understand the mechanisms shaping their working lives. And when these algorithms hold the potential to shape our lives in profound ways, capable of influencing who is hired and fired, how much you earn and when you work, accountability is increasingly transferred away from human managers.

Platforms are removing work from its geographic bounds

The last few years have seen a huge explosion in the gig economy, where workers make a living through completing multiple short jobs. While forms of gig work have always existed, online work platforms have led to a huge rise in the scale of the gig economy. Some of these platforms you know, such as Uber and Deliveroo, with many of us either using these services or seeing their workers on the streets.

But this place-based platform work is only the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps of much greater importance are the workers you don’t see, completing jobs online, with no need for the person doing the work to be in same place as either the customer or the employer. Online labour platforms, such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, have sprung up to connect workers with employers, allowing workers across the globe to compete for a limited supply of work. From America to El Salvador, Nigeria to the Philippines, the total absence of regulation surrounding these online labour platforms is leading to a race to the bottom for wages; the average worker on Amazon Mechanical Turk earns just $2 an hour.

Take back technology

Yet there is cause for hope. Technology is not neutral, but a result of the social setting from which it emerges, with the ability to empower workers and provide stable, secure work. At NEF we are exploring how unions, activists and workers can use technology to create workplaces which care for the most vulnerable workers, through alternative ownership models, collective bargaining and regulation.

Read the report: Who watches the workers?

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