Posts Tagged ‘workplace’

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It’s about time someone pointed out the obvious: “Bosses are dictators, and workers are their subjects.”

We generally don’t talk that way, of course. However, as Elizabeth Anderson [ht: ja] explains, contemporary workplaces are like private governments, in which employers have dictatorial powers over their workers—and workers have almost no say in how they are governed.

Like Louis XIV’s government, the typical American workplace is kept private from those it governs. Managers often conceal decisions of vital interest to their workers. Often, they don’t even give advance notice of firm closures and layoffs. They are free to sacrifice workers’ dignity in dominating and humiliating their subordinates. Most employer harassment of workers is perfectly legal, as long as bosses mete it out on an equal-opportunity basis. (Walmart and Amazon managers are notorious for berating and belittling their workers.) And workers have virtually no power to hold their bosses accountable for such abuses: They can’t fire their bosses, and can’t sue them for mistreatment except in a very narrow range of cases, mostly having to do with discrimination.

Dictatorship in the workplace—after workers are forced to freely sell their ability to work in the labor market—seems obvious to me and many other heterodox economists. But it’s certainly not obvious to mainstream economists, who like their classical predecessors continue to celebrate the freedom and mutual benefit of wage contracts and the efficiency of firms that are ruled by the representatives of the property owners.*

What is even more interesting, at least to me, is the way Anderson mentions the issue of time and then seems to let it slide.

Here’s how she begins her essay:

Consider some facts about how American employers control their workers. Amazon prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this “time theft.” Apple inspects the personal belongings of its retail workers, some of whom lose up to a half-hour of unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched. Tyson prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom. Some have been forced to urinate on themselves while their supervisors mock them.

But then Anderson, after mentioning “time theft,” moves on to the various ways employers exercise dictatorial control over their workers and forgets about time. But isn’t time what the employer-worker relationship is all about—the reason that employers act like dictators and workers are forced to surrender almost all their rights while they are working?

What is mostly absent from Anderson’s analysis is time, especially the distinction between necessary labor-time and surplus labor-time. During part of the workday, employees—whether at Walmart, GM, or Google—work for themselves, and thus receive a wage equal to the value of their ability to work. But they continue working and during those extra hours they aren’t working for themselves, but for their employers. That’s time that’s stolen from the workers, which forms the basis of their employers’ profits.

So, the real “time theft” is not what workers do to their employers, exactly the opposite, what employers do to their workers—when, after necessary labor-time is completed, workers are forced to have the freedom to engage in surplus labor-time.

Thus, when Amazon workers exchange casual remarks while on duty, they’re cutting into the surplus labor-time due to their employers. The half-hour Apple workers wait in line to be searched, for which they are not paid, is a way of making sure that particular activity doesn’t cut into the surplus-time due to their employers. By the same token, when Tyson prevents its’ poultry workers from using the bathroom, who are then forced to urinate on themselves, less time is being spent engaged working for themselves and more for their employers.

In other words, under conditions of workplace dictatorship, time is stolen from workers to  benefit their employers.

Furthermore, because employers, and not workers, are the ones who appropriate the benefits of surplus labor-time, it puts workers in the position of continuing to be forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work and to submit to the dictates of their employers.

Thus, “time theft” is both a condition and consequence of the private dictatorship of employers in the workplace.

A whole book could in fact be written about this idea of “time theft,” inside and outside the workplace.

For example, inside the workplace, new technologies have the effect both of allowing time to slip out of employers’ grasp—as, for example, when workers appear to be working at their desks but, in fact, are surfing the internet or catching up with friends and family members on Facebook—and allowing employers to tighten their grip—especially when it permits control over the pace of work and new forms of surveillance. Technology seems to cut both ways when it comes to “time theft” in the workplace.

But “time theft” is also important outside the workplace. Consider, for example, the standardization of time—which robs many of us of local traditions of time—as well as the fact that there is a large and growing gap in life expectancy between those at the top and bottom of the economic scale—which means time is being stolen from the poor and distributed to the rich.

I could go on. The important point is “time theft” is an ongoing problem of contemporary capitalism, both within the dictatorship of the workplace and in the seeming democracy of our lives outside of work.

It’s time someone wrote that book.

 

*In fact, Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom were awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Economics for “proving” that capitalist firms (and not, e.g., worker-owned enterprises) represent the most efficient way to organize production.

 

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Just the other day in class, we discussed Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, “A story of industry, of enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” Remember the scene in which The Tramp (a Factory Worker in the credits) sneaks away into the restroom to grab a smoke and the boss catches him via video surveillance?

Well, the modern workplace goes far beyond that.

As Lynn Stuart Parramore [ht: ja] explains,

It’s obvious that wearable tracking technology has gone mainstream: Just look at the explosion of smart watches and activity monitors that allow people to count steps and check their calorie intake. But this technology has simultaneously been creeping into workplace: The military uses sensors that scan for injuries, monitor heart rate and check hydration. More and more, professional athletes are strapping on devices that track every conceivable dimension of performance. Smart ice skates that measure a skater’s jump. Clothes measure an athlete’s breathing and collect muscle data. At this year’s tryouts in Indianapolis, some NFL hopefuls wore the “Adidas miCoach,” a device that sends data on speed and acceleration straight to trainers’ iPads. Over the objection of many athletes, coaches and team owners are keen to track off-the-field activity, too, such as sleep patterns and diet. With million-dollar players at stake, big money seems poised to trump privacy.

Now employers from industries that don’t even require much physical labor are getting in on the game.

Finance is adopting sophisticated analytics to ensure business performance from high-dollar employees. Cambridge neuroscientist and former Goldman Sachs trader John Coates works with companies to figure out how monitoring biological signals can lead to trading success; his research focuses on measuring hormones that increase confidence and other desirable states as well as those that produce negative, stressful states. In a report for Bloomberg, Coates explained that he is working with “three or four hedge funds” to apply an “early-warning system” that would alert supervisors when traders are getting into the hormonal danger zone. He calls this process “human optimization.”

People who do the most basic, underpaid work in our society are increasingly subject to physical monitoring, too — and it extends far beyond the ubiquitous urine test. Bank of America has started using smart badges that monitor the voice and behavior patterns of call-center workers, partnering with the creepily named Humanyze, a company specializing in “people analytics.” Humanyze is the brainchild of the MIT Media Lab, the fancy research institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dedicated to the “betterment of humanity,” which, incidentally, receives a quarter of its funding from taxpayers. Humanyze concocted a computer dashboard complete with graphs and pie charts that can display the location of employees (Were you hanging out in the lounge today?) and their “social context” (Do you spend a lot of time alone?).

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This brave new world of workplace biosurveillance is, of course, reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, whose major effect, as Michel Foucault explained, is

to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. . .

It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up.

That’s exactly why, in these modern times, we need to be aware of companies whose names end in yze. And, of course, of all the employers who use the mechanisms of biosurveillance invented and sold by those companies.