Union rejects workplace surveillance

Jun 07 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

A British trade union has slammed bosses for 'dehumanizing' their staff after research revealed that a growing number of employers are using electronic tagging technology to monitor their every move in the workplace.

A report by report by Professor Michael Blakemore of Durham University for the GMB union found that a variety of wearable devices are being used in Britain's wholesale distribution industry which supplies supermarkets and shops.

Some consist of computers worn on the arm and finger computers linked to local area radio networks and to GPS systems.

Orders from shops are beamed to warehouses workers wearing these devices to tell them which goods to pick in different parts of the warehouses, for dispatch to top up the shelves. The only role for the worker is to do as the computer order requires.

The devices calculate how long it takes to go from one part of the warehouse to the other and what breaks the workers need and how long they need to go to the toilet.

In effect, the union claims, these devices to dispatch goods to supermarkets and shops have made workers the aid to the computer rather than the other way round.

"The only functions that the human do are the bits that have not yet been automated," the GMB said.

Paul Kenny, GMB Acting General Secretary said, "This technology which involves the electronic tagging of workers has been imported into Britain from the US.

"The supermarkets that rely on just in time shelf filling rather than holding buffer stocks are incredibly profitable companies. They can well afford to operate a humanized supply chain," he added.

As we reported on Management-Issues last month, U.S. employers are increasingly adopting sophisticated technology solutions in the belief that they will boost productivity and protect resources.

The 2005 Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance Survey from American Management Association (AMA) found that with one in ten videotape selected job categories and six per cent videotaping all employees.

The survey also showed that 15 per cent of U.S. employers were even prepared to videotape workers without notifying them of the practice, something that falls foul of Article 8 of the European Human Rights Act enshrining respect for private and family life and personal correspondence.

Meanwhile, "The Future Role of Trust in Work", a report by London School of Economics (LSE) academic Dr Carsten Sorensen, warned earlier this year that office workers also face the threat of increasing control, monitoring, scrutiny and micromanagement as supply chain technology developed for monitoring goods is applied to individuals and the creation of knowledge.

This is an inappropriate use of technology, Sorensen argued. Instead, organisations should be working on creating new technologies that enable group working and increased transparency in a trusted environment.

Another study led by Professor Francis Green of the University of Kent argued that 'robotic' jobs which lack scope for personal initiative lead to deepening job dissatisfaction.

For Paul Kenny, the trend is an unacceptable one.

"The GMB is no Luddite organisation but we will not stand idly by to see our members reduced to automatons," he said.

"The use of this technology needs to be redesigned to be an aide to the worker rather than making the worker its slave."