I'll be watching you - surveillance of homeworkers
By Simon Korner
If you’re a capitalist, how do you harass your employees when they’re working from home? One answer: Microsoft’s “long-awaited new webcam” (The Verge, 13 April 2021). Just as Amazon uses Time-Off-Task digital surveillance in its warehouses to measure productivity to the second – and punishes anyone falling behind – webcam surveillance is bringing the same pressures to home-working.
BOSSES SPY IN YOUR HOME
The surveillance system gives the employer access to live footage of each employee’s home work-station. This is “optional” – except that it’s not. An internal memo from the world’s biggest call centre company, Teleperformance, which is rolling out the system, says employees must allow random, mandatory spot checks. That means every worker has to switch on the webcam whenever they log in or out. The system makes sure workers aren’t eating on the job or leaving their desks for any reason. Whenever the Artificial Intelligence (AI) system’s scan detects “breaches of work rules during a shift”, it forwards a still image of the infraction to management. Even the shortest period of time without mouse-clicks or keyboard strokes is regarded as idleness. Workers going to the toilet or getting up to fetch a drink of water must use the app to enter “break mode” to avoid punishment.
Teleperformance will spy on the other people who share an employee’s workspace – partner, kids, flatmates – ostensibly to ensure that confidentiality is not breached. The cameras will also be set up with facial recognition so they can detect if someone else is sitting at the desk. One worker at Teleperformance’s centre in Airdrie near Glasgow says: “I don’t want my boss looking into my home but I need my job so I can’t possibly say no. These are Big Brother tactics and frightening. We have no idea what security there is to protect us if the people monitoring us abuse their power. We don’t even know if this technology can be hacked.” Craig Anderson, Communications Workers Union Scottish regional secretary, says: “The call centre industry has always been an industry where targets and monitoring have been some of the highest in any sector and I think now companies are pushing a boundary, and it's a moral boundary, that's too far.” As permanent home-working becomes more widespread and companies such as Teleperformance close their physical sites to save money – Teleperformance is closing its Airdrie site later this year – domestic snooping is set to become the norm. 80% of Teleperformance’s British workers currently work from home (Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser, 12 April 2021).
French-owned Teleperformance has been one of the most successful “pandemic profiteers,” with Covid bringing a massive shift of transactions to call centres. It operates across 34 countries and employs 380,000 worldwide. In Britain it employs 10,000 people. Clients include the RAF, the Royal Navy, the health and education departments, NHS Digital, the Student Loans Company, alongside its work for Vodafone, eBay, Aviva, Volkswagen and the Guardian. Many other companies, particularly the bigger ones, have also begun using home surveillance. Accounting giant PwC uses facial recognition to make sure home-workers are at their computer screens, though PwC claims this is for security, as financial institutions must comply with strict regulations.
David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of Basecamp, which provides a supervision software platform for businesses, says he regularly has to turn down requests from companies for new methods of spying on their employees. "There is a depressing amount of demand," he says. Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, believes the trend towards home surveillance is a logical extension of surveillance in the workplace. But it is "more worrying" she says, because "home still remains a private space". Howard Beckett, assistant general secretary of Unite, promises that the union will "will fight legally and industrially to prevent any push to normalise home surveillance".
Surveillance - both in work and the home - is a huge growth area. By 2025, it will be a $1.87 billion industry, according to San Francisco's Grand Review Research. Time and motion is entering the digital age. The next step will be microchips implanted under the skin. One Swedish co-working space called Epicenter has been holding "chipping parties", where people can have RFID-enabled (radio frequency ID) rice-sized microchips implanted in their hands. They then use the implants to access electronically controlled doors, for example, of else for social contacts. embedded chips are only a step along the road from ID cards and biometrics, says Professor Jeffery Stanton, of the University of Syracuse, who researches work-related stress. He says that if such schemes are optional, many people will go for them for convenience. But what does optional mean? If your job depends on having an implant, you have no real choice.
Such surveillance is perfectly legal, according to employment lawyer Max Winthrop, so long as the firm is transparent about what it’s doing, and it’s in the worker’s contract. Acas says employers must tell staff if they’re being tracked, because “workers are entitled to privacy at work”. But knowing about it doesn’t change the fact you are being spied on. The most it does is give unionised workplaces a chance to bargain over the extent of the surveillance.
Surveillance is about speeding up work and extending the working day – two methods by which capitalists can increase surplus value. The Daily Mail (3 Feb 2021) points out that people working from home put in 10 hours extra each week compared to when they are in the office, according to NordVPN Teams, a company that provides digital network services to businesses. That amounts to an increase in worktime of 25%. Many home-workers regularly work till 8pm. Surveillance will put them under further pressure.
Struggles around the length of the working day were one of workers’ first demands as capitalism developed. When opposition grew to the point of pressing the capitalist state to enact laws limiting the working day, the capitalists turned to increasing the intensity of labour, usually by speeding up the machinery so the worker produced more value in the same hours worked. Digital surveillance is a modern method of squeezing maximum labour out of workers – no matter how deleterious the effects on health and sanity; and capitalists have little incentive to maintain their workers’ well-being, particularly in periods of high unemployment when they can easily find replacement labour.
Just as during earlier industrialisation, nothing will stop the relentless onslaught for profits except resistance from organised labour, class struggle. That means trade unions developing new forms of organisation in an age when the workforce is increasingly atomised and under close electronic watch. It also means mass campaigning on the political front for legal protection from the digital overseers. Michael Ford QC, quoted in the 2018 TUC report on surveillance I’ll be watching you, said: “Surveillance is almost as old as work itself, but new techniques represent a growing threat of a different kind to workers and unions.” Workers must find new ways to defend themselves against new threats. But defensive strategies can never be enough. The fundamental problem is wage-slavery, and to end that socialism is required.
Surveillance is about speeding up work and extending the working day - two methods by which capitalists can increase surplus value.