To protect low-wage workers from invasive digital surveillance that follows them home, Congress needs to adopt a comprehensive framework that protects both worker and consumer data. In the absence of such Congressional action, regulatory action such as the FTC’s advanced notice of proposed rulemaking and the National Labor Relations Board’s recent focus on surveillance can be used to improve the situation. Finally, labor law doctrines should venture even further to address the impacts of surveillance: for instance, the NLRB should hold that evidence of surveillance is an essential term or condition of employment for determining whether two companies are a worker’s joint employer under its newly proposed joint employer rule.
By generating huge data sets to feed increasingly sophisticated algorithms, workplace surveillance allows employers to extract even more value from their employees. Greater data protection rights provide one possible avenue to change these power dynamics. But if employees truly want to participate in the management of their data and tap into it as a source of value, they need to wield power over data collection systems through collective bargaining and shared workplace governance.
Electronic surveillance and automated management should not be understood as merely imposing some new, discrete set of harms on workers. Rather, pervasive employee monitoring should be seen as fundamentally altering the employment context in a way that threatens a wide range of employment and labor law protections. From worker safety, compensation, and classification to workplace discrimination and disability policy, policymakers and regulators must ensure that longstanding protections remain effective in the face of new technology.
Platforms differ markedly in how they use technology to mediate and oversee the labor process. By comparing Amazon’s e-commerce platform, where workers are gathered in warehouses, with MTurk, it’s distributed digital labor platform, we can see how both the nature of the platform and nature of the work give rise to distinct modes of surveillance, as well as their own possibilities for resistance.
In 2017, the United States government required that all long-haul truck drivers install electronic logging devices. While this mandate had only limited success in making the roads safer and reducing trucker fatigue, it provided a foundation for additional surveillance by employers and other profit-seeking companies. This layering of government, employer, and commercial surveillance into one apparatus stacked the deck against the workers and may be a bellwether of things to come in other workplaces.
Employers increasingly track what workers do during their shifts, during breaks, and at home. Over the next few weeks, this symposium will consider how workplace surveillance threatens workers individually and collectively, as well as how legal and non-legal strategies can combat invasive employer monitoring.