Workplace Surveillance: Overwork’s Racist Roots

By Nat Baldino

Technological innovation has always been a central determining factor of job quality. While algorithmic management is still nascent and policymakers often discuss automation as a looming threat, harnessing technologies to increase production through surveillance and overwork has long been a central strategy of colonialism. Given this history, these innovations are not intrinsically positive or even morally neutral, but the products of America’s racist labor history. It is essential that strong public policy prevents technology from insidiously claiming control over a worker’s body, time, and autonomy.

The Technological History of Dehumanizing Work

Economic progress cannot be separated from the brutality of slavery. The invention of the cotton gin allowed enslavers to expand their land and use slave labor to grow more cotton. And as use of the cotton gin grew – in 1810, there were 87,000 cotton spindles; in 1860, there were 5 million – the amount of cotton that enslaved people had to pick also increased. In their attempts to extract every bit of labor possible, enslavers relied not just on technological innovation but also on brutal punishment and constant surveillance. Many of today’s management systems and technological revolutions can be traced back to techniques developed by plantation owners to increase profits.

The Potential Costs of Technological Innovation

Now, enormous amounts of data are collected from as many different sources as possible and processed into an algorithm that aggregates it, rates human performance, and makes decisions based on the data received. Because algorithms rely on as much data as possible, this has led to a proliferation of surveillance tools. Amazon is notorious for its use of “time-off-task” (TOT) tracking to enforce draconian break policies within its warehouses. If an employee’s TOT exceeds 15 minutes, or one’s rate of productivity falls below the prescribed speed for the task, the employee receives an automatic write-up. Visits to the restroom, interaction with other employees, or any sort of rest tracked through wearables is counted as TOT. This pace of work is untenable and dangerous; a 2022 report found that Amazon warehouse workers suffered serious injuries at twice the rate of rival companies in 2021.

In addition to the physical toll many workers report, there are also mental health costs – and not just at Amazon. The relentless pace and chronic understaffing in many underpaid industries, including service, retail, care work, and hospitality, has led to overworked and isolated employees. These are industries in which BIPOC workers have historically been overrepresented. The pace of work reported by workers in these fields is strongly linked to depression, anxiety, and increasing rates of workplace suicides.  Surveillance and algorithmic management is only likely to worsen this strain.

Policy Recommendations

Any solutions that policymakers come up with must be systemic and focused on promoting worker autonomy. Some useful approaches include:

  • Fund National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) research: NIOSH is a federal research agency that studies worker health and safety. Research on job strain as it relates to electronic surveillance is needed to allow legislators to act based on scientific research that complements worker narratives.
  • Use an interagency approach: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is responsible for protecting the rights of private sector workers. In 2022, NLRB’s General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo released a memo describing an interagency approach that includes the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice in creating new standards for worker surveillance and pace of work.
  • Hold corporations accountable: New corporate accountability legislation could require greater transparency over lean production and surveillance methods. Legislation could also mandate that data-driven technology is continuously evaluated by outside legal entities. Workers should have a role in impact assessments as experts in their workplace who can speak to how algorithmic systems affect their work life.
  • Protect data privacy: Data privacy rights, like the Worker Privacy Act proposed by the Center on Privacy & Technology, can limit the amount and types of data employers can collect. Currently, there are very few limits on data collection and little to no privacy rights for workers. A comprehensive federal data privacy law, like the California Consumer Privacy Act, could begin to bring transparency back to the workplace. Additionally, workers must know what data is being collected and how it informs things like quotas, productivity scores, and “time-off-task” rates. This information can give workers power to speak out against inhumane or retaliatory treatment.

America’s history of racial capitalism shows that technology is never neutral. As modern technology continues to evolve, it is more essential than ever that worker protections keep pace with technological innovation.