When Big Brother Is Your Boss: The Rise of Surveillance Wages
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When Big Brother Is Your Boss: The Rise of Surveillance Wages

In the past decade, employers have been binging on data and the tools to track everything workers do—in and out of work. Anyone who thinks this data grab isn’t going to be used to transform the nature of wages and benefits and the work contract has another think coming. My prediction is that in the next 10 years we will come to accept that each worker’s wages are constantly changing, behaviorally shaped, and different from their coworkers’–unless we stop it. I call this trend “surveillance wages.”

All the elements are there. Farmers have been getting paid different rates for the same work for years, as Chris Leonard reported in his book The Meat Racket. Tyson Foods, the giant meat processor, has changing and individualized terms for chicken farmers—and contractually bars them from comparing what they are paid to other farmers, leading to a state of perpetual paranoia. But Tyson’s tools are limited compared to what big tech companies have learned how to track. Uber tracks millions of metrics every day and assigns individualized tasks to drivers. It not only tracks how quickly drivers brake and how frequently they stop, and where, and for what, but also uses analytics to deliver gamified prompts matched to each driver’s data profile. Instead of a year-end bonus for good work—the old model—drivers are paid through a complex blend of bonuses and demerits, constantly pinged with reminders of goals, pushed and prodded and profiled to tweak how little they make and how much Uber collects.

Corporations are on a worker-data binge akin to the consumer data binge of the prior decade. Companies like Amazon are tracking their employees and contractors as if they were in a gig economy rendition of 1984. Companies map workers’ moods to their locations while recording conversations, keyboard strokes, health data and speed on task. Surveillance wages rely on monitoring and experimentation systems: thumb scans, identification badges, closed circuit cameras, geolocation tracking, sensors on tablets and vehicles, and software that can analyze employees’ tones of voice and facial expressions.

Unsurprisingly Amazon, a reliable global leader in identifying new ways to demean workers, is leading here: The company constantly measures time spent on various activities, tracking productivity, and using algorithms to fire workers who don’t live up to quotas. Perhaps you’ve heard about Amazon workers peeing in bottles? That’s a response to the punishing quota demands that make taking the most basic breaks physically impossible for many workers. At the same time, Amazon is experimenting with work-games with names like MissionRacer, PicksInSpace, Dragon Duel and CastleCrafter. Gaining proficiency at these games can lead to raises in wages. Rewarding successful workers with “Swag Bucks”—an internal currency that can be used to make Amazon purchases—brings The Hunger Games to life on the warehouse floor. The goal is to keep wages as low as legally permissible—making the minimum wage the ceiling, not the floor—by identifying just how little it takes to get any given employee to perform a task. And if workers quit during this experimentation process—so what? Constant churn is part of the company’s plan.

It doesn’t stop at the warehouse door. Without new legal limits, companies are set up to maintain surveillance far outside the workplace and work hours, collecting information on your friendships and interactions online. They track what people do not just on their own websites but also on other websites and at brick and mortar locations outside the workplace.

In all the conferences and meetings devoted to the future of work, far too little attention has been paid to the increasing use of dynamic (i.e., constantly changing) pricing for labor, and personalized pricing (as when you and I pay different amounts for the same airline seat) as applied to labor. While companies that use so-called independent contractors are at the forefront of individualized wages, your being classified as an employee doesn’t protect you from employers extracting and using data in individualized ways, or constantly changing contractual terms.

Why now? Three developments are converging: first, concentration in labor markets, so employers have much more power to dictate terms to workers; second, the decline in labor unions, who had the power to make any bonuses or differential pay subject to a labor contract; and third, the radical and swift rise in Big Data and algorithmic decision-making of the kind that is now routine, along with off-the-shelf tools for employers to use.

Facebook changed from a purely chronological feed in 2009. First, it simply promoted some content based on popularity; then, it gradually started individualizing the feed, and giving advertisers access to targeted audiences. But the changes did not announce themselves, and the social and political impact of these changes wasn’t realized until a decade later. The change from a neutral platform to a platform that targets different posts based on big data and algorithmic decision-making happened quickly but imperceptibly—and the changes to pay and working conditions are likely to happen the same way: without a bang or a banner.

The signs are all around us. A new report by Dr. Wilneida Negrón of has revealed the scope of the private capital being funneled into these growing technologies to help employers track their workers. According to the report, McDonald’s, Amazon, and Walmart have all spent billions in the past two years alone on workplace tech that includes labor optimization and workplace surveillance tools, giving these corporate behemoths an outsize influence in the technology’s development.

We already know how surveillance wages will be justified: Companies need information to study and increase productivity; they need to maximize management incentives, to identify and reduce waste, to keep employees from rule breaking. And once they have data, it would be strange not to use it for making hiring, firing, and promotion decisions. But we also know that it will primarily be used to pinpoint the breaking point of each worker—and to pay her or him just that much—and not a penny more.

Paying each worker differently also allows companies to actively isolate workers from their colleagues, destroying the sense of solidarity that union organizing depends on. Dynamic labor pricing–changing the wages and terms on a regular basis, through real-time bonuses and short-term contracts–has added to uncertainty and instability, leading to employees being treated more like in-house independent contractors, without the security and solidarity that employment traditionally provided.

This is no small change. If not stopped it will amount to a fundamental reworking of the relationship between workers and employers. And when you add surveillance wages to the political latitude granted to corporations under the Citizens United decision, companies will be able to single out politically problematic workers, and reward workers who are politically aligned with the company.

We must get ahead of this before it happens. If we don’t, we will spend decades cleaning up the wreckage, in much the way that we’re still struggling to understand—let alone remedy—the damage caused by targeted advertising for social media.

This time, if we act promptly, we have the chance to stop surveillance wages before they become ubiquitous. That will require some blend of enhanced statutory labor protections, increased labor power, and bans on the collection and use of some kinds of personal data at work. At the same time, for such measures to become politically feasible, we also need to dismantle the structures that make surveillance wages possible, and break up the corporate giants who are pioneering this new form of peonage. This monstrous invasion of workers’ privacy—another symptom of corporate America’s gross consolidated power—must be stopped while there’s still time to act.


Zephyr Teachout is a constitutional lawyer and Law Professor at Fordham University and the author of Break ’Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom From Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money.

Co-published with The Nation.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Zephyr Teachout is a constitutional lawyer and Law Professor at Fordham University and the author of Break ’Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom From Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money.

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