Amazon uses worker surveillance to boost performance and stop staff joining unions, study says

Amazon has been accused of using surveillance technology on workers to stymie unionisation efforts and boost employee productivity, according to a research paper released by the Open Markets Institute on Monday. Reuters first reported the findings. Open Markets Institute, an advocacy group that focuses on antitrust and tech company monopolies reported that Amazon utilises navigation software, item scanners, wristbands, thermal cameras, security cameras and recorded footage to keep its store and warehouse workers under close watch.

The group claims Amazon uses these tools to influence where it stations its employees in an effort to undermine potential unionisation efforts. In one example, Amazon reportedly uses heat maps and data detailing employee’s attitudes towards the company, as well as a “diversity index” to help determine which stores are more likely to face a unionisation attempt. If it is likely a store’s employees will attempt to unionise, then they are separated, according to the report.

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Amazon has faced criticism for its treatment of employees.

During the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, Amazon employees complained that their colleagues were getting infected with the virus as a result of the company not sending its workers home. Some workers opted to walk off the job in protest. In 2019, a former employee at Amazon wrote a piece for TIME magazine alleging the company treated its workers “like robots.”

“Technology has enabled employers to enforce a work pace with no room for inefficiency, squeezing every ounce of downtime out of workers’ days. The scan gun I used to do my job was also my own personal digital manager. Every single thing I did was monitored and timed,” Emily Guendelsberger, the author, wrote. “After I completed a task, the scan gun not only immediately gave me a new one but also started counting down the seconds I had left to do it.”

She said the scan gun would alert a manager if she had spent too many minutes being “time off task.” She claimed workers were only allowed 18 minutes per-shift of “time off task,” which included bathroom breaks, getting water, or walking slower than the scan gun’s algorithm determined necessary. “I felt as if the company wanted us to be robots – never stopping, never letting our minds wander off task. I felt an incredible amount of pressure to repress the human ‘failings’ that made me less efficient than a machine. (Amazon in response said that this is not an ‘accurate portrayal of working in our buildings’ and that it is ‘proud of our safe workplaces’.)” she wrote.

Sally Hubbard, the director of enforcement strategy at the Open Markets Institute, said the report was intended to show the negative impact these kinds of surveillance measures have on employees.

“Our aim is to show how the tremendous imbalance of power between employers and workers get exacerbated by an alarming increase in surveillance,” she said.

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The report argues that invasive worker surveillance should be prohibited and that employers, like Amazon, should have to obtain state and federal approval to use non-invasive tracking measures that don’t hurt workers. It also suggests the National Labour Relations Board prohibit certain types of surveillance methods if they’re being used to break up unionisation activity. An Amazon spokesman issued a statement to The Independent regarding the study’s findings.

“Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazonian – be it corporate employee or fulfilment centre associate and we measure actual performance against those expectations.

Associate performance is measured and evaluated over a long period of time as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour,” the spokesman said in a statement. “We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

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