Rights Groups Demand Lawmakers Stop Amazon's Workplace Surveillance

Amazon claims its “Time Off Task” system is used to increase worker productivity, but civil rights groups point to the company’s history of anti-union surveillance and worker retaliation.
October 14, 2020, 8:08pm
On Wednesday, a group of civil rights groups collectively known as the Athena coalition published an open statement demanding lawmakers prohibit workplace surveillance, specifically methods used by companies like Amazon to retaliate against workers.  In l

On Wednesday, a group of civil rights groups within the Athena coalition published an open statement demanding lawmakers prohibit workplace surveillance, specifically methods used by companies like Amazon to retaliate against workers.

In late September, Farhiyo Warsame—an Amazon warehouse worker at its Shakopee, Minnesota facility—was fired for "time off task" violations. Amazon's surveillance technique, known as the Time off Task (TOT) tracking system, is able to track a worker's physical movements as they take breaks or move between tasks.

“At Amazon warehouses, workers report that a scanner tells you exactly where to go, gives you seconds to get there, and then orders you what to do next. Your entire workload and every task you complete is managed in seconds,” the coalition writes. “If you take longer than the seconds you are given, the time is added to your time off task.”

In June, workers sued Amazon for lax safety protocols and poor working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic that put them and their families at risk. Amazon’s TOT system came under scrutiny, with workers worried that time spent washing hands would be used against them. Amazon insisted otherwise and told the court that in March it "ceased providing productive feedback to associates and imposing any discipline related to low productivity rates,” but workers say productivity quotas have returned ahead of Prime Day, Bloomberg reported.

Warsame, who organized workers in the Shakopee warehouse to successfully demand better working conditions, was the third Amazon employee fired at that warehouse after raising concerns about working conditions. Ostensibly, the program is used to track worker productivity; in reality, the rights groups say, the TOT system helps Amazon discipline its labor force with the implied threat of termination.

“Amazon and other massive corporations claim tech that monitors workers improves productivity. In reality these invasive systems are punitive,” said Sandy Fulton, the Government Relations Director at Free Press, one of the statement’s signers. “Systems that track the amount of time workers are ‘off task’ are used to strictly control their physical movements, and retaliate against workers whenever companies like Amazon see fit.”

A single Baltimore facility fired an estimated 300 of 2500 full-time workers for failing to meet productivity metrics—12 percent of its workforce, The Verge reported. If Amazon’s 75 warehouses have similar rates, the result would be tens of thousands of workers fired annually for failing to meet productivity quotas.

Amazon can afford to fire swaths of its workforce because, even before the pandemic, Amazon was the second-largest private U.S. employer. During the pandemic it has hired hundreds of thousands of new workers while waves of layoffs have become the norm for firms across the entire economy.

Another reason mentioned in the letter, however, is that TOT helps harvest data that can prevent worker organizing. On the same day that Amazon announced a job opening for an intelligence analyst to track “labor organizing threats,” Motherboard revealed an Amazon surveillance program that spied on Amazon Flex drivers inside of private Facebook groups. The better Amazon can keep an eye on efforts to improve working conditions, the better Amazon can, for example, “ratchet up production quotas to the point that humans can’t keep up without hurting themselves” while ignoring and retaliating against organizers.

"In workplaces with unions—like UPS—they actually bargain over the nature of what can be done algorithmically,” said Sheheryar Kaoosji, the Executive Director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, “The long term solution is to have workers with a voice that can address any issue, not just legislation that will take years to develop, pass, and implement. Open up the black box, open up the algorithms, show us what you're doing and make sure we understand it. Workers deserve to understand and make decisions about what is going on.”