Let's say you're the CEO of a big corporation that runs a global network of massive shipping warehouses. What measures should you take to prevent theft by your workers? Frisking employees as they leave? Not letting them leave during a fire alarm? Showing videos of previous thieves and their unlucky fates on flatscreen TVs throughout the warehouse?
If your name is Jeff Bezos, you or someone in your company probably said yes to all these methods. That's because, as Josh Eidelson just reported in Bloomberg, Amazon has actually tried them all out. "That's a weird way to go about scaring people," quipped one former employee about the videos.
Amazon has been in the news before for the low pay and unpleasant working conditions its warehouse workers often must endure, and the way it uses advanced technology to track, measure, and evaluate the speed and efficiency of their every move. "Several former workers said the handheld computers, which look like clunky scientific calculators with handles and big screens, gave them a real-time indication of whether they were running behind or ahead of their target and by how much," the Financial Times reported. "Managers could also send text messages to these devices to tell workers to speed up." Amazon has also caught flack for nurturing an intensely competitive, metric-driven environment for its white collar workers, driving more than a few to mental and physical exhaustion.
Nor is this purely an Amazon problem. As writers like Corey Robin and Barbara Ehrenreich poignantly documented, companies from Jim Beam to Nabisco have gone so far as to discipline plant employees for using the bathroom outside of pre-set break times. Exxon Mobil and Delta have installed software on their computer systems to alert management to words like "boss" or "union" in any employee document or email. American employers sometimes monitor their workers' behavior on social media, or data-mine their employees' health status. Robin, Chris Bertram, and Alex Gourevitch have listed examples of workers punished for what they wear, for who they associate with, for refusing to be searched, for having opinions about religion or politics, for cross-dressing, for drinking, for smoking — it goes on.
As of 2009, over two-thirds of occupational health practitioners had reported encountering workers afraid to report injuries or illnesses for fear of reprisal. And it's worth noting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration only has enough staff to inspect each individual workplace once every 139 years. Unsafe working conditions, exploitative contracts, and abusive bosses can be found throughout the low-wage service industries of hotels, fast food, restaurants, and more.
Now, obviously there's a sliding scale here. Some of this stuff is genuinely abusive and illegal. And some of it is just creepy and demeaning. To thread it all together I think you have to remember that employment is inescapably a social relationship. As such, workplaces inevitably rely on a whole web of unspoken cultural norms to police the boundaries between what are and aren't acceptable demands of workers, and what is and isn't permissible in the name of greater productivity and smoother workplace operation.
Robin, Bertram and Gourevitch pointed out that no paper contract can possibly encompass all the implicit expectations that come along with this. Which means that when workers sign contracts, they risk signing away the rights — to privacy, to speech, to freedoms, even to bathroom access — that they take for granted in the other social spaces.
Certainly, government can help by instituting and enforcing more rules. But the government can only do so much to keep up with the almost endless ways an employer can make demands of workers.
I suspect the ultimate solution here is a broad and social one. When workers come to their jobs armed with social and cultural capital, when they work in an economy where opportunities outnumber job seekers, when they have unions and other institutions to inject democratic demands into the workplace, their workplaces will be far healthier, more humane, and more respectful.
"There's nothing neutral about data; it serves the purpose of counting what we choose to enumerate," Natasha Lennard wrote last year. "Amazon's model is about efficiency and bulk, it doesn't read for well-being."
That's exactly the kind of mistake bosses and management can make when they aren't on a relatively equal social playing field with the people they employ. Vast differences in social power can hamstring someone's capacity for the empathy and blind them to the practical human consequences of the seemingly technocratic pursuit of ever greater efficiency.