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4 November 2022

Amazon’s worker surveillance “leads to extreme stress and anxiety”

Academics have warned MPs that the use of connected tech in the workplace needs to be better regulated.

By Sarah Dawood

At its best technological advancement can free workers from mundane, repetitive tasks and allow them to concentrate on more cognitively challenging and creative ones. Concerns remain, however, around the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and connected products to monitor people in the workplace.

Three academics answered questions from the MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee this week about the opportunities and dangers of using connected tech at work.

How are AI and connected technology used in the workplace?

AI can be used to automate repetitive tasks, therefore increasing humans’ productivity, and to make supply chains and operations more efficient. Examples include AI-powered transcription services, manufacturing robots and online customer chatbots.

Connected tech, such as wearables, is primarily used to track workers’ activity and for health and safety reasons. For example, in the manufacturing sector fatigue-monitoring sensors have been used for workers operating machinery, while some companies have introduced smart wristbands or step-counters such as Fitbits to encourage staff to do more exercise.

What laws are there around connected tech at work?

While not workplace specific, the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill is making its way through parliament. It is intended to ensure connected devices better protect individuals’ privacy. The Data Protection Act 2018 is the UK’s implementation of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and mandates that people’s personal data is used “fairly, lawfully and transparently”.

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What are the concerns around using this tech at work?

Major concerns include: unethical data collection and privacy intrusion; constant surveillance and the resulting impact on mental health; and how the advancement of this tech might displace people from their jobs.

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Amazon’s patented design for a connected wristband that can track warehouse workers’ locations and “nudge” them in the direction of their next assignment was highlighted in the committee session. An Amazon spokesperson told Spotlight the company has since “abandoned” this patent. The tech giant is also alleged to have used technology such as monitoring software to automatically fire delivery drivers in the US if they don’t meet speed and efficiency requirements, and, according to Business Insider, a heat map tool to assess where workers at the Amazon-owned Whole Foods might be likely to unionise. These examples were also mentioned in the session.

[See also: Why Amazon is raising the price of Prime in a cost-of-living crisis]

Dr Matthew Cole, a postdoctoral researcher at the Fairwork Project, an initiative within the Oxford Internet Institute that researches working conditions at digital platforms, said that constant surveillance and reduced autonomy was detrimental to employees’ health. “Overwhelmingly, the evidence shows that the technologies that Amazon uses are not empowering,” he said. “They lead to overwork, extreme stress and anxiety, and health problems such as joint problems. Amazon is not the leader to see how tech can benefit workers.”

Dr Asieh Hosseini Tabaghdehi, senior lecturer in strategy and business economics at Brunel University London, added that tracking workers’ every move impacted their wellbeing and said that employees’ needs should be properly balanced with productivity.

An Amazon spokesperson said: “We know we’re not perfect and are continuing to get better every day, but we don’t believe the committee was given an accurate picture about how Amazon operates.” They added that the company was “disappointed” by the witnesses’ “misguided” comments.

They said: “We use state-of-the-art technology across our network to keep our employees safe in the workplace. It supports our people in their roles to serve our customers every day. But our innovation also helps 85,000 small and medium-sized UK-based businesses who sell their products on Amazon to succeed and grow as well.”

How could we stop unethical practices?

Tabaghdehi said that the use of technology had been “monopolised” by giants such as Amazon and legislation should be used to redistribute power to support small businesses to use tech in a more positive way.

Cole added that tech giants should be treated like “public resources”, similar to “water, electricity and gas”. “The fact that they’re largely controlled by a single person and largely rivalling much state power in terms of how they govern is an issue, and will continue to be into the future,” he said. More funding should go towards helping public sector organisations develop technological breakthroughs, he said. “When you invest public funds into a public service, you [can] use those returns in ways that are more efficient than when you have five different companies trying to develop the same thing and failing.”

How should laws be strengthened to help workers?

Several European countries, such as France and Italy, have “right to disconnect” legislation, which Cole said could be implemented in the UK to limit employee monitoring and communications outside of the workplace or working hours. He also said that the use of AI systems should be more closely monitored by the Office for National Statistics (ONS); data privacy regulation such as GDPR should be regularly updated; and the UK should establish a single designated body to oversee and inspect compliance with employment standards, including the use of AI and connected tech.

Dr Efpraxia Zamani, senior lecturer in information systems at the University of Sheffield, echoed the need for better regulation, especially for connected tech. “If it does not get regulated, others will follow suit, emulating the practices we’ve seen with Amazon,” she said. Businesses might ask their employees to wear Fitbits to encourage them to monitor their health and wellbeing, but it is unclear how businesses are using the data, she said.

An Amazon spokesperson added: “We look forward to engaging with the committee and this inquiry and would be delighted to invite them to a fulfilment centre to see for themselves the great workplace we provide for our employees and the innovative technology that supports them. Our doors are open.”

[See also: NHS Digital’s Mike Fell: “Cybersecurity can sound bizarre, but getting it wrong puts patients at risk”]