The brave new world of work: where employees are treated as criminals

by Anthony Elliott on May 12, 2013

By Anthony Elliott, University of South Australia

Every age has its estimate of the pressures and perils of work. Adam Smith, writing in the 18th century, focused on the toil and trauma of work. Karl Marx, writing in the 19th century, spoke of the alienation of labour.

In our own time, employment – for more and more people – is being stretched to embrace new personal tribulations and emotional troubles.

As revealed by the Financial Times, Amazon have been deploying electronic tagging on some employees. This scandal is one powerful indication of such torments.

The Amazon employees, based at the company’s flagship factory in Staffordshire, entered into labour contracts that required them to carry handheld devices. These electronic devices were, in turn, used to measure worker productivity in real time.

Workers carrying such devices were bestowed with percentages for their speed in completing designated tasks. Fast work scored high marks. The flipside, however, was the latent message that one might get axed for crimes like failing to keep up.

The devices also transmitted continual messages and warnings from management. Performance management thus covered updates on the grave risks of talking for too long with fellow employees (or the perils of taking too many toilet breaks).

Guardian journalist Zoe Williams declared Amazon’s electronic tagging part of “the new shamelessness” with which corporations treat lowly paid workers. This “shamelessness” encompasses a creeping criminalisation of employees, one that at once monitors and humiliates workers.

How might we best understand the spread of a workplace culture of electronic tagging? One place to start arguably concerns the wholesale shift away from jobs-for-life to short-term contract labour.

The end of a job-for-life, and of the associated notion of a “career” developed within a single organisation, has been interpreted by some critics as heralding the arrival of a “new economy” – flexible, mobile, networked. The global financier and philanthropist George Soros has argued that “transactions” now substitute for “relationships” in the global economic economy.

The “new economy”, structured by the twin forces of globalisation and new information technologies, is bound up with intensive forms of creation and destruction. Our economy is undeniably in the age of flexible employment, multiple careers, corporate networking and expanded professional horizons. Yet we also see routine corporate layoffs, endless downsizing, global electronic outsourcing and the rise of “McJobs”.

Globalisation has undeniably ushered into existence changes of enormous magnitude, and in such a world people are under intense pressure to keep pace with the sheer speed of change. Seemingly secure jobs are wiped out, literally, overnight. Multinational corporations move their operations from country to country in search of the best profit margin. Women and men clamber frenetically to obtain new skills or be discarded.

Amazon is not the first company to use the latest in technological advances to regulate its workforce and nor will it be the last. In addition to electronic tagging, corporate network administrators can today choose from a technology menu that includes full-body scanning and digital surveillance for extending the repertoire of their employee performance management.

Is Zoe Williams’s conjecture of an emergent “criminalisation” of workers overblown? Perhaps. Yet what does emerge from this brave new world of workplace electronic surveillance is something not so much sinister as it is soul-destroying. This concerns the widespread fear of social exclusion.

Today women and men in the workplace suffer, above all else, from what I call “disposability anxiety”. This is a fear of rejection, relegation or retrenchment. It is a fear that one doesn’t measure up, or does not work fast enough, or is not sufficiently flexible or adaptable.

From this angle, electronic tagging functions as a constant reminder that one can always be faster, lighter, better, more self-actualising. Readiness for what comes next, and willingness to embrace change, is central. Those that fail to live up to the requirements of the new employment flexibility are out – axed, retrenched, dumped.

The global electronic economy spawns transformations at the speed of light, from the sudden movement of factories across the world to the mass migration of workers. But globalisation, perhaps more insidiously, also penetrates deeply into the emotional fabric of people’s working lives. It reshuffles people, instilling fear as it drives out reliable security.

There appears to be a growing acceptance that today’s performance management culture is beneficial and even desirable. Yet the newly emergent electronic surveillance of workers, particularly through the use of tagging devices fixed to the body, obviously raises serious civil liberty and ethical concerns.

Above all, surely the fear of personal disposability that such practices promote borders on the criminal?

Anthony Elliott receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

Peter Crothers

October 1, 2013 9:21 pm

I'm a small business employer. You state "Yet the newly emergent electronic surveillance of workers, particularly through the use of tagging devices fixed to the body, obviously raises serious civil liberty and ethical concerns."

First may I observe that the tagging devices mentioned were not "fixed to the body" but "carried"? Let's at least be truthful.

That aside, please may I please ask "In what sense is it ethically concerning to expect employees to show that they are actually working?" ? Using me as an example, is it in the sense that perhaps my employees are entitled to do something different with their time than what I want them to do? If so, to what extent do my expectations carry moral weight, or are even relevant?

If my expectations that my employees spend the overwhelming proportion of their time at work (excluding breaks) actually working somehow lack relevance, then to what extent do my priorities as employer have any validity at all? Why would, or should, I be expected pay people (my money) to do something different than what I want and am legally entitled to expect, such as social networking unrelated to work for example? And what would be the moral basis of this? Or am I to be assumed to be immoral and exploitative for expecting people to do work tasks while at work, and otherwise behave in the way expected or envisaged by, say, a Modern Award?

If my expectations of employees have relevancy, then to what extent am I entitled to monitor employees performance? Please be specific, because I'm genuinely interested.


September 24, 2013 9:55 pm

Maybe they need to employ robots they can charge batterys overnight, instead of humans. I wouldn't work for dogs like that fullstop


September 24, 2013 7:48 am

This article prompts me to inform you that this type of surveillance of workers can take other forms besides electronic. In my workplace, a public high school in New South Wales, classroom teacher s are being forced to have a lesson observation in the name of improving classroom practise. Modelled on the Quality Teaching framework, teachers are "observed" by colleagues who are "trained" to observe a lesson. Notes are taken and "feedback" is provided to the teacher. These notes are then compiled and stored "somewhere". This is not a voluntary exercise as teachers have been "directed" by the Principal to participate in this exercise. This activity has been causing experienced teachers to feel the fear of personal disposability as you have pointed out and is causing emotional pain to people. Our Union does not agree with this process as it is outside the bounds of our Employment Assessment. The "boss" has told us we cannot refuse "lesson observation" as it will improve teaching practise. Even now I am feeling "threatened" by just writing this in case the "boss" finds out that I am letting people know this kind of thing is happening. Staff are calling in sick rather than be "forced" to have "observations". What a toxic environment education is in this day and age.

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