Amazon surveillance boosts worker output, may limit unions: Paper

E-commerce giant monitors workers and reallocates roles to possibly prevent unionising, antitrust group says in report.

Amazon.Com Inc. Fulfillment Centre [Bloomberg]
Amazon says it measures worker performance and uses training to help those who are not meeting its expectations. The company also says it offers employees terms requested by United States labour groups [File: Jason Alden/Bloomberg] relies on extensive worker surveillance to boost employee output and potentially limit unionisation efforts around the United States, according to a research paper by the Open Markets Institute (OMI).

The Washington-based research and advocacy group, focused on antitrust issues and the monopoly power of technology companies, said Amazon uses tools such as navigation software, item scanners, wristbands, thermal cameras, security cameras and recorded footage to surveil its workforce in warehouses and stores.

The paper says Amazon moves employees around in what could be an attempt to limit union organising. For example, it creates heat maps and uses data such as team-member sentiment and a diversity index to figure out which of its stores may have a higher risk of unionising, the report says.

This can have an impact on workers’ ability to advocate for better working conditions and push for collective action, the paper said.

Companies across industries use data on their workforces to boost output. Companies have increased surveillance during the coronavirus pandemic to track employees and maintain a healthy workforce, and also to track the time employees spend working as more people telecommute.

Amazon has faced scrutiny for how it treats its workers.

A company spokesman said Amazon has expectations from its employees and measures 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,” he added.

‘Tremendous imbalance of power’

The Reuters news agency reported in May that Amazon has long resisted unionisation. Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said at the time that Amazon already offers what labour groups are requesting: $15 per hour or more to start, health benefits and opportunities for career growth. She said employee health and safety were the company’s top priority.

Sally Hubbard, director of enforcement strategy at the OMI and a former New York assistant attorney general, said: “Our aim is to show how the tremendous imbalance of power between employers and workers gets exacerbated by an alarming increase in surveillance.”

The paper says invasive forms of worker surveillance should be prohibited and employers such as Amazon should obtain approval from state and federal agencies for non-invasive tracking measures that do not harm workers.

The research paper also says the National Labor Relations Board should prohibit certain types of surveillance and its use to limit unionisation efforts.

If companies still do it, the burden must be on them to obtain approval from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency under the US Department of Labor, the paper said.

Source: Reuters