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  Wage Slaves Get Collared (Again)  
Posted 2005-06-07 by Tony Walsh
Chandrasutra points to a story at The Guardian revealing that some British warehouse workers are being electronically "tagged" in an effort to increase productivity. Small, mobile computers, reportedly in use by retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Boots and Marks & Spencer, keep track of workers, inventory, and equipment. According to The Guardian, "The computer can also check on whether workers are taking unauthorised breaks and work out the shortest time a worker needs to complete a job."

While the move to digitally supervise labourers might seem outrageous, it isn't out of place in terms of history.

The Industrial Revolution saw the development of "Scientific Management," championed by Frederic Winslow Taylor (1856-1915). "Taylor looked at interaction of human characteristics, social environment, task, and physical environment, capacity, speed, durability, and cost. The overall goal was to remove human variability." Increased efficiency and production resulted, but so did conflict between management and labour, worker apathy and boredom. [Historical Background of Organizational Behavior, Wertheim, 1999]

The "assembly line," a fixture of modern industry, was introduced in 1913 by car-maker Henry Ford. The technology, that kept workers, inventory, and equipment in their places, revolutionized manufacturing and allowed Ford to increase worker wages. Ford was called "a traitor to his class" by other industrialists and professionals. [, June 7, 2005]

The retail surveillance and computer-moderated work force discussed in The Guardian's article is a new stage in the dehumanization of labour. The technology itself has historical precedent, and isn't inherently "bad" or "good." How industry wields the technology is the key. A hundred years ago, efficiency at the expense of worker health and morale was an acceptible concept. Today's industrialists (at least in the G8 nations) aren't as likely to get away with roboticizing the working class.
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Comment posted by Gamma Fodder
June 7, 2005 @ 8:11 pm
True story: The wife of a friend of mine works in the IT industry in Washington D.C. The company issues magnetic identification cards to every employee which double as time cards. To go anywhere in the office, one has to swipe their identification card; coming into work, having lunch, going to the water cooler and going to the bathroom. During the day, the company has a computer which keeps track of your total time worked and how much time spent away from your computer. If you spend less than eight hours working, your pay is docked and your supervisor gives you a stern talking-to, possibly leading to dismissal.

Up until your post, I had always rolled my eyes at my friend's story and brushed it off as being another horror of corporate fascist America. Turns out it's not so far away after all. Thanks for the chilling story.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
June 7, 2005 @ 10:42 pm
That story sounds a lot like the conditions of North American factory workers in the 20th century. I don't know which decades in particular were the worst for this, but prior to computers, there'd be a company foreman with a clipboard monitoring productivity minutia such as number of widgets produced per hour. Breaks, if any, were rigidly enforced. Basically the same stuff you mention, but pre-high-tech. Now, instead of a foreman, we have a forebot.

By contrast, when I visited a Cuban cigar factory a couple of years ago, the workers there get pay incentives to work efficiently and productively. The factory didn't have a clipboard-weilding slave-driver barking orders. Instead, there was a person at the front of the room reading to the workers while they made cigars (I can't recall if it was educational or entertainment material offhand). I don't know what goes on when the tourists aren't around, but it seemed pretty socially-advanced for a factory.
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