By Martha Ockenfels-Martinez, MPH
Jan. 21, 2021
The technology on my phone has been a lifeline this past year. It connects me to the people I love the most, it lets me see what’s happening around the world in real-time, and in general makes my life feel easier and more connected. But not all new technology is making our lives easier or more peaceful. The inhumane and punitive application of some forms of technology is actively hurting the health and well-being of millions of workers across the country. Workers at Amazon and drivers at Lyft and Uber are constantly monitored by surveillance technology, and it's taking a toll on their health and their ability to do their jobs safely.
Last year Human Impact Partners published a report on the health impacts of working for ride hail companies like Lyft and Uber, and just last week we published a report on the health impacts of working for Amazon in a warehouse or as a subcontracted delivery driver. The studies found that working for Amazon, Lyft, and Uber can be harmful for worker health, with workplace surveillance emerging as a key culprit in pushing workers into mental and physical health distress.
At Lyft and Uber, drivers are tracked and monitored constantly for how fast they drive, how quickly they brake, and whether or not they accept all the rides that are sent to them, all through the app on their phone. What the app doesn’t take into account is the conditions that drivers are working in, and what outside environmental factors are influencing drivers' work. Drivers report that the companies' monitoring is used to penalize them for how and when they drive, and even when they don’t accept a ride request, which goes against Uber and Lyft’s claims of driver flexibility. Drivers face repercussions regardless if they are "clocked in" on the app, or if the ride sent to them from the ride hail computer system would throw a wrench in their route.
Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers are also closely monitored, either by handheld scanning devices or other technology that can track their movements moment-to-moment. Many workers report not using the restroom or taking needed breaks because their electronic tracking has quick and punitive repercussions when they stop working, even when it's a brief pause to attend to their basic human needs.
Workers also don’t have time to follow public health guidelines for hand washing due to tracking devices that set an alarm if they take over six minutes of “time off task.” “Time off task" is Amazon's term for any time a worker takes away from their station for a break or restroom trip. Too much “time off task,” and a worker can lose their job without the opportunity to explain or appeal the automated decision in a meaningful way.
Workers who responded to our survey shared that this constant surveillance results in stress, anxiety, and depression. The stress of being constantly monitored by their employers is compounded by the stress and anxiety workers already experience due to the chronic economic insecurity of the job itself. Workers know they could be fired without warning or a fair chance to appeal. Workers face write-ups based on the surveilling computer system, rather than a human being, leaving workers feeling disempowered and isolated, which both lead to poor health outcomes.
The constant surveillance at Amazon, Uber, and Lyft enforces a strict regimen on how workers do their jobs, allowing little personal agency for workers. A lack of control over work is known to impact health, and many studies have found that the less control and agency a worker has, the more likely they are to have negative health outcomes. Researchers report that workers who have stressful jobs and low control over their work have higher rates of depression and anxiety, as well as headaches, stomach problems, sleep disorders, and high blood pressure.
Working under constant surveillance coupled with the lack of control over how they do their job in turn produces chronic stress for many workers. And we know that chronic stress can lead to a host of health issues, including immune-system damage, anxiety and depression, heart disease, digestive issues, headaches, sleep issues, weight gain and obesity, and issues with memory and concentration.
It's worth noting that a large percentage of Amazon warehouse workers and Uber and Lyft drivers are people of color. In the warehousing industry, workers of color make up 66 percent of workers, and a recent study found that 78 percent of the Lyft workforce in San Francisco are people of color and 56 percent are immigrants. This means that the harms from workplace surveillance in these industries is disproportionately impacting people of color.
This surveillance of workers isn’t occurring in a vacuum. In the Othering & Belonging Institute’s recent livestream panel on "The Surveillance State, Social Safety and Building Power," we learned from community organizers that surveillance technology has a long history connected to the "othering" of communities of color and immigrant communities. Panelists discussed how newer surveillance technology has aided ICE raids, detentions, deportations, and the arrests of activists. These leaders also reported that it's not new for workers to experience surveillance. What is new is the amount and type of surveillance the experience, and the intensity of the impacts to workers’ health.
A recent report from the Open Markets Institute found surveillance-induced stress and anxiety can lower worker productivity and increase the risk of worker injuries at Amazon. The report also found that workplace surveillance is tied to maintaining employer power and intimidation over workers, and part of the goal of surveillance is to keep workers from unionizing or banding together to advocate for better working conditions. One way Amazon has been doing this is by firing workers for speaking out about unhealthy workplace conditions.
Workers deserve dignity and respect. The surveillance systems used by Amazon, Lyft, Uber, and other companies dehumanize and implicitly criminalize workers on a daily basis. The current chronic system of monitoring and punitive repercussions has removed the humanity of workers, turning them into cogs in the machine. Workers deserve to work in such a way that promotes health, not diminishes it. Surveillance culture at companies like Amazon, Lyft, Uber, and others needs to be eliminated to support the health and safety of workers. These intense workplace surveillance practices left unchecked could eventually impact all of us and in turn our collective health all in the name of a false sense of “efficiency.”
See the following campaign websites to learn more about supporting workers speaking out about the harms of workplace surveillance:
From Media Justice: Demand Amazon End Its Deals With the Surveillance State
From Athena Coalition: Stop Silencing Workers
From Athena Coalition: Amazon Associates say: Cut Amazon’s Contracts with Police Departments and ICE
Martha Ockenfels-Martinez, MPH, is a research associate at Human Impact Partners.
Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.