Worker Surveillance and Class Power

Brishen Rogers 

Companies around the world are dreaming up a new generation of technologies designed to monitor their workers—from Amazon’s new employee wristbands, to Uber’s recording whether its drivers are holding their phones rather than mounting them, to “Worksmart,” a new productivity tool that takes photos of workers every ten minutes via their webcams. Technologies like these can erode workplace privacy and encourage 46038488 - law concept: circuit board with  scales icon, 3d renderdiscrimination. Without disregarding the importance of those effects, I want to focus in this post on how employers can use new monitoring technologies to drive down wages or otherwise disempower workers as a class. I’ll use examples from Uber, not because Uber is exceptional in this regard — it most certainly is not — but rather because it is exemplary.

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No Servants, No Masters

Brishen Rogers –

Earlier this week, a Politico piece by Eric Posner (Chicago Law) and Glen Weyl (Microsoft Research) started to bounce around in progressive labor and twitter circles. It’s entitled “Sponsor An Immigrant Yourself,” and proposes  a new “Visas Between Individuals” program through which, they assert, “native workers rather than corporations” could reap the benefits of liberalized immigration.

Weyl has already expressed regrets about the tone and title of the piece, but has said that he “stands by the argument.” Tone and title aside, however, the proposal itself replicates many of the worst aspects of existing guestwork programs – so much so, in fact, that it could relegate many migrants to debt servitude.

Here’s the core of the proposal, in Posner and Weyl’s own words:

Imagine a woman named Mary Turner, who lives in Wheeling, West Virginia. She was recently laid off from a chicken-processing plant and makes ends meet by walking and taking care of her neighbors’ pets. Mary could expand her little business by hiring some workers, but no one in the area would accept a wage she can afford. Mary goes online—to a new kind of international gig economy website, a Fiverr for immigrants—and applies to sponsor a migrant. She enters information about what she needs: someone with rudimentary English skills, no criminal record and an affection for animals. She offers a room in her basement, meals and $5 an hour. (Sponsors under this program would be exempt from paying minimum wage.) The website offers Mary some matches—people living in foreign countries who would like to spend some time in the United States and earn some money. After some back and forth, Mary interviews a woman named Sofia who lives in Paraguay

Sofia, who grew up in a village, has endured hardships that few Americans can imagine. She is eager to earn some money so that she could move to her nation’s capital city and get some vocational training. A few weeks later, Sofia arrives in Wheeling, after taking a one-week training course on American ways. If things don’t work out, the agency that runs the website will find a new match for Sofia, and Mary will find someone new as well.

Each family would be permitted to sponsor up to four migrants through this program, thus boosting their income by $10,000 to $20,000. “The reason,” they explain, “is that migrants to the United States usually increase their wages many times, allowing them to pay as much as $6,000 to hosts for sponsorships.” In addition to dog walking or household labor, Posner and Weyl imagine other uses to which migrants could be put – and here I use the passive voice intentionally – including leasing them out to factories, farms, or other businesses.

Posner and Weyl are surely well-intentioned. The notion that liberalizing immigration (if not in the way the authors propose) would have important poverty-reducing effects on a global scale has strong support in the literature, for example in the work of Dani Rodrik. The authors also want to ensure that the benefits of immigration to extend to non-elites rather than being captured by shareholders of companies that hire immigrants, which is a laudable goal.

But the proposal seems to tolerate or even embrace various practices that labor migration scholars and worker organizations have roundly condemned, including restrictions on migrants’ ability to leave abusive employment relationships, and toleration of migrants’ purchasing the right to enter the country. As a result, the proposal would not actually grant migrants any real freedom to enter and compete in our labor markets. Indeed, many could end up having to pay off a debt through work — which is the legal definition of peonage, or debt servitude.

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The Law and Political Economy of the “Future of Work”

Brishen Rogers

How will new advanced information technologies impact work? This is a major focus of public debate right now, driven by widespread fears that automation will soon leave tens of millions unemployed. But debate so far has tended to neglect the relationship among technological innovation, political economy, and the law of work. This is a major omission, since the automation of particular tasks doesn’t just happen. Rather, it takes place under laws that are subject to democratic oversight and revision – and with different laws, we could encourage a radically different path of technological development, one in which workers have a real voice, and in which they share consistently in technology-driven productivity gains.

Take two upcoming transformations that we’re all familiar with: the automation of some kinds of driving and some kinds of fast-food work. Within a few years, truckers, delivery drivers, and taxi drivers may be able to use an autonomous mode consistently on highways. Later on, they may be able to do so on major suburban and rural streets. But given the wide variation in road quality, humans will likely need to pilot vehicles in residential areas and on city streets for some time to come. And given the wide variation in building structures that delivery robots would need to navigate, humans will almost certainly need to complete deliveries in many instances.

Similarly, in fast food, ordering kiosks are already displacing cashiers, but not in their entirety. Some customers are unable to use the kiosks, including the 70% of McDonalds customers who use the drive-through. Sometimes the kiosks will break down, and sometimes orders won’t be processed appropriately, and thus workers will need to step in. Food preparation may also be automated in part, but given the fine motor control and tacit knowledge required for cooking, it has proven resistant to full automation. Like the transformation in driving, then, this change will likely be gradual and iterative. Technology will augment human capabilities rather than replacing humans wholesale, and workers, companies, and consumers will need to adapt over time.

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