Employment

'We need protection': How AI, algorithms and oppressive digital tech are pushing workers to the brink

The digital revolution has reinvented the world of work. But the digitisation of our workplaces is stretching workers even further

The digitisation of work is pushing workers to the brink. Credit: Canva

Most of us cannot imagine a day of work without using some form of digital technology. Whether you spend half your days in Zoom meetings, have to scan your fingerprint on arrival at the office or have a work phone on you at all times, the digital revolution has reinvented the world of work. 

But under the surface, the digitisation of our workplaces is stretching workers even further, pressuring them to work harder than ever and blurring any sense of work/life balance. From bossware surveillance software becoming the norm for most white collar workers to delivery drivers and posties being constantly monitored by wearable devices, the digital age of work and the exploitation of technology by bosses is putting workers under immense pressure.

When we were in lockdown, many employers rushed to introduce measures to crank down on ‘slacking’ behaviour at work. Instead of focusing on supporting employee wellbeing during a global pandemic, the moral panic around laziness amongst remote workers led to a rise in adoption of bossware surveillance technologies, software used to spy on workers through their work devices. A report by the Trade Union Congress found that 60% of workers in the UK believe they have been spied on at work in their current or most recent role.

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At Amazon, history was made this year when Coventry warehouse workers were the first UK workers at the company to go on strike, with one of their main concerns being the widespread surveillance culture at the company. Amazon warehouse worker scanners collect data at every level of the workplace, with worker performance reportedly being measured through these gadgets. Garfield Hylton is a worker at the Coventry warehouse, who tells the Big Issue that these scanners often get it wrong, so he has learned to keep a log of his activity in case he gets challenged by management on his performance. Workers are not only competing with the clock, but having to prove they’re doing so to avoid problems at work.

But it isn’t only Big Tech companies who are using oppressive technologies to stretch workers even further. Royal Mail equips their postal workers with scanners which track their delivery speeds, forcing workers to compete with impossible productivity targets and leading to increasing stress on the job. 

Luke Elgar, a postal worker and CWU National Executive member, feels that technology at work is currently being exploited by those at the top, while workers lose out. He says: “Businesses are able to introduce technology which saves money by replacing staff or seeks to improve productivity. This however is becoming a one-sided affair where those with the power to wield the technology are able to use it as a whip by tracking workers at all hours of the day and subsequently seeking to punish them for not meeting targets on working speeds.” 

Algorithmic bias and unfair and illegal decision making is also a possibility, with algorithms mirroring the same biases and social inequalities we see in the offline world. A report by the IPPR found that women, young people and ethnic minorities are more likely to be negatively affected by surveillance at work.

Work, digital tech and the efficiency myth

It isn’t solely technology being used by employers to employees that can become a burden. Since the pandemic there has been a growing shift towards digital methods of working, requiring workers to adapt fast or get left behind. “New digital tools are sold to workers based on freeing up their time but that isn’t always the case.” says Ceri Williams, a policy officer at Trade Union Congress Wales. “We’ve heard that new technology is making decisions on legal casework, but it can only deal with simpler cases, meaning staff have to relentlessly deal with complex cases, while simultaneously facing tech-driven productivity targets,” Williams tells the Big Issue.

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This strain is being felt by public sector workers too. Sam* is a secondary school teacher in North West London. Since the pandemic, he has noticed a growing pressure to move to online methods of teaching, but these tools have not made work more efficient, but instead have added more to their workload. “Post pandemic, we are providing online access to resources, lessons and provision even with kids back in school in the vast majority of cases. It has been a ‘mission creep’ and just accepted as ‘part of the job’ now, [we are] not compensated for the additional work.”

The impact of this prolonged intensification of work on employees cannot be underestimated. Last month, it was found that workplace absences are at a 10-year high, with stress being the major cause of long-term sickness. 

“Employers in the delivery sector are facing huge strains on their mental and physical health as companies seek to use parcel scanning devices to track employees every move,” says postal worker Luke. “This has a significantly worse impact on those of age or with disabilities in work who are expected to maintain a computer calculated average pace.”

Traditionally, many of these digital tools had been reserved to the gig economy, where tracking employees on the clock is an essential part of the business model. Emerging companies that have taken the modern world by storm such as Uber and Deliveroo are dependent on vast collections of data from users and workers. Data is currency in the digital age, which is what makes it so important to have more agency over the data we share. 

The Worker Information Exchange was founded by former Uber driver James Farrar as a way of enabling gig economy workers to share their data more freely to learn how their employers use the data collect to make decisions. For example, earlier this year a report they published revealed that Just Eat relied on faulty automated decision making to fire workers without explanation. This trend of using algorithms to replace human managers fuels a wider pattern of misjudgement and error, due to algorithms being unable to consider contextual factors. 

One of the main ways that workers can reclaim agency over the use of technology in relation to their work is through their data. Connected by Data is an organisation that centres the importance of communities knowing what decisions their data is being used to make.

“Employers need to engage and negotiate with workers to prioritise what problems technology is brought in to address; listen to them to understand its impact; and ensure workers can challenge decisions that affect their work and opportunities,” says Jeni Tenison, director of Connected By Data. 

Legislation is currently lagging far behind. In the UK, there is currently no legislation specific to protecting workers from the unfair use of AI. “ Unions are developing new tools to challenge such pressures, but we need stronger legal protection,” Williams says.

Undeniably, unions are at the forefront of the fight against unfair technology at work. Just last month, the Writers Guild of America, representing striking Hollywood writers, won an agreement that will allow unionised writers to get to decide whether or not they want to use AI in their work. Similarly, the Trade Union Congress have just recently launched their AI taskforce, which aims to publish an AI and Employment Bill in early 2024, with the aim of it being made law.

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