Downsizing and the growth of insecure jobs has clearly created a problem for employers in terms of motivating employees and ensuring that they work hard on the job even though their job may be temporary. One response has been to use new technologies to increase the monitoring of workers, particularly low-level unskilled workers. Computers enable close and immediate monitoring and evaluation of job performance.
Millions of employees today are subject to some form of electronic surveillance of their work, such as counting key strokes or keeping track of time spent on telephone calls. Such monitoring is just as intimidating, persistent and stressful as an assembly line.
In Australia workplace surveillance is big business and miniaturisation of camera equipment is making it easier and cheaper. One survey by Price Waterhouse-Coopers found that half of Australia’s top 65 companies said they used video equipment to monitor the workplace. Most, but not all (85%), told their employees they were doing it. Six percent admitted to regularly monitoring email.
One of the booming industries of the 1990s has been call centres. Many companies and government agencies are contracting out their telephone answering services. Dozens of workers spend all day in a large open-plan office answering the phone, up to 100 calls a day:
New technology is making possible an old-style of autocratic control of workers that some thought dead and buried. Every little move they make is monitored. If phone agents fail to process calls fast enough, or stray from the prescribed script, or fail to convert enough calls into sales, the electronic monitoring and the audio tapes will expose them... For almost half the workers in the industry take-home pay can be affected if they fail to meet targets for calls taken or made. This is performance assessment on a minute-by-minute basis.
Increasingly employers are seeking information about employees including their shopping habits, attitudes to unions and living arrangements. In the US, “[f]or less than $100, employers can purchase packages of detailed personal information that can include a criminal history, driving records, credit histories and workers compensation records, as well as more subjective information on character and reputation gathered during interviews with former employers and even neighbors.”
In Britain the Sunday Times reported on a proposal to implant microchips in workers to keep track of them. Cybernetics expert, Kevin Warwick told the paper “It is pushing at the limits of what society will accept, but in a way it is not such a big deal... Many employees already carry swipecards.” Perhaps more palatable is the ‘smart badge’ being developed by AT&T Laboratories in Cambridge which uses ultrasound to keep track of an employee’s whereabouts.
In Japan Hitachi is marketing a cellphone-based tracking device that will track workers and inform employers not only where they are but whether they are standing, walking, running or lying down. Originally developed to keep track of family members with dementia, it is too expensive for most families and is now being offered to employers who want to catch workers who sneak out of the office for a coffee break or a nap.