The coronavirus outbreak has had a profound effect on the U.S. economy, with the Economic Policy Institute estimating the unemployment rate may reach 16% by July as many businesses remain closed or shutter their doors for good. Corporations around the country are developing different strategies for confronting this unprecedented disruption of business, and many of the steps that are being taken threaten to increase corporate power at the cost of workers’ job stability and autonomy.
Amazon, for starters, has faced a major backlash from its workers due to what it claims are unsafe work conditions during this outbreak. It’s claimed warehouses are not being sanitized enough and that workers aren’t being offered hazard pay or paid time off. The company says it’s doing everything it can to make sure conditions are as safe as possible, but not everyone is convinced.
In order to enforce social distancing rules at its warehouses, Amazon has claimed it assigned “top machine learning technologists to capture opportunities to improve social distancing” using its “internal camera systems.” Artificial intelligence can be used to make surveillance more capable by allowing it to analyze what is recording.
Amazon warehouses are already heavily surveilled, and it sounds like worker surveillance could increase further. Workers in these warehouses are monitored to see how quickly they’re fulfilling orders and are frequently fired for failing to meet quotas. Some employees have claimed they don’t even have time to leave their station to use the restroom.
Amazon hasn’t released enough information on how it might be increasing surveillance to enforce social distancing rules, but based on how this kind of technology has been used in its warehouses and beyond, it’s not hard to imagine what it would look like. These cameras could track where workers are, how far they are away from each other, and send out alerts to managers when an employee has been violating the rules.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
Workplace surveillance isn’t just increasing in warehouses. It’s been reported that corporations across the nation are rapidly buying up surveillance technology to monitor employees who are working from home.
This kind of technology can monitor an employee’s keystrokes, the websites they visit, and can take screenshots of their computer. One video conference tool employers are using called “Sneek” stays on throughout the workday and regularly takes pictures of you through your webcam to show if you’re at your computer.
Imagine you’re working from home, and you’re paralyzed by the fact your bosses are watching everything you do. They know what you’re saying to your co-workers on Slack. They know what websites you’re on when you take a break. They could be taking a screenshot of your computer at any moment without you realizing it. The mental health effects of this could be debilitating.
Outside of surveillance, the coronavirus outbreak appears likely to increase automation efforts at numerous companies, such as Amazon and Walmart. These companies have already been investing heavily in automating warehouses and stores in recent years, and the outbreak could significantly accelerate the adoption of robot workers.
A report from Oxford University economists that was published last year claimed 20 million manufacturing jobs could be lost to automation by 2030. We haven’t yet seen these kinds of massive job losses from automation partially because the technology hadn’t developed enough for robots to perform all of the tasks human workers can, but we’re getting closer to a point where that will change.
Richard Wolff, a professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, tells the Daily Dot that what we’re seeing is simply a continuing of corporate behavior that was already happening. This outbreak may supercharge it.
“They’re always trying to replace workers with machines because they can control a machine in the way they can’t control the worker,” Wolff says. “They also try to have surveillance so they can monitor the worker—usually to better control the worker.”
Wolff says business leaders are more worried about the future of their companies than he’s seen them worried in a long time because of the economic effects of this outbreak, and these companies want to do everything they can to prevent themselves from losing more money than they already have. He says automation and surveillance are ways they can attempt to control the damage.
“A virus shuts you down because you have live workers. A virus with robots is not a problem. This simpleness is about the extent of which many of these people can grasp,” Wolff says. “They understand they’re going to have a need for laborless technology more than ever and very strict control over the irreducible number of live laborers that they have.”
As businesses adapt to getting work done without human labor, they may have little incentive to prioritize creating jobs.
Considering the coronavirus stimulus bill that was passed in March contains $500 billion to bail out large companies that are struggling because of the outbreak. Wolff says he could see some of that money being used to invest in automation efforts and surveillance.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, tells the Daily Dot that people shouldn’t only be thinking about companies buying new robots when discussing automation, as artificial intelligence is helping companies replace white-collar workers more and more these days.
“Artificial intelligence was already coming for white-collar jobs,” Pfeffer says. “I don’t think it’s just a blue-collar phenomenon.”
Pfeffer says jobs in the legal industry, finance, journalism, tech, and beyond that were previously done by humans are now often being performed by software programs. The Associated Press has had A.I. writing articles for years.
Surveillance of white-collar workers will also continue to increase as they spend more time working from home.
“It makes sense to make sure my $200,000-a-year worker is doing what I want them to do, so with all of this remote work, I can see them checking on when you’re logged in, when you’re not logged off, and monitoring what you’re producing,” Pfeffer says. “I think it’s bad for everybody—not just blue-collar workers.”
Ifeoma Ajunwa, a professor of labor and employment law at Cornell University, agrees with Pfeffer. She tells the Daily Dot that it’s good that people working from home allows them to stay employed, but it also means they may experience more invasions of their privacy.
“Although the employer has a legal interest in monitoring employees that are working remotely, excessive surveillance can violate the privacy of workers and can also be counterproductive, as the stress from surveillance can reduce productivity,” Ajunwa says.
It’s hard to overstate the mental health effects of working in a heavily surveilled environment. Research shows workplace surveillance can significantly increase stress levels and harm an employee’s performance on the job. Automation threatening to take your job away entirely is obviously also a stressor.
“One of the things that affects people’s health, both mental and physical, is job control. Job control means that you have some discretion over what you do and when you do it,” Pfeffer says. “We know job control and autonomy is good for you, and it’s probably also good for your motivation and productivity, but job control has been eroding for a long time, and this will probably continue that trend.”
The coronavirus outbreak could throw gasoline on the fire.
Larry Mishel, a distinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, tells the Daily Dot that the only way workers will be able to take their power back is through collective action. He says whether they form an official union or simply start making demands of their company as a group, their best bet is to work together to get their needs met.
“I think there are going to be a lot of people who—when they view this situation—are going to wish that they had a union, had more voice on the job, that they had a way to engage with their employer to get better pay, to get hazard pay, to get safe working conditions,” Mishel says. “We’re seeing a fair amount of collective action amongst workers who are both union and non-union.”