‘Constantly monitored’: the pushback against AI surveillance at work

‘Constantly monitored’: the pushback against AI surveillance at work

technology By Jan 07, 2024 No Comments

Constantly monitored: the pushback against AI surveillance at work

From algorithms firing staff without human intervention to software keeping tabs on bathroom breaks, technologies including Artificial Intelligence are already upsetting workers and unsettling workplaces.

At call centers, AI systems record and grade how workers handle calls, often giving failing grades for not sticking to the script. Some corporate software spies on workers to see whether they ever write the word “union” in their emails.

As technologies grow ever more sophisticated in monitoring, surveilling, and speeding up workers, many workplace experts say US businesses, labor unions, and government are not doing nearly enough to protect workers from Tech’s downsides.

“Workers are being constantly monitored, and AI-based monitoring tools can make mistakes that can translate into unfair pay cuts or firings,” said Virginia Doellgast, a professor of employment relations at Cornell.

“Workers often don’t know what monitoring tools are being used, what data the tools are collecting, or how that data is used to evaluate their performance.”

European Union Standards vs. North American Lag

In Europe, unlike in the US and Canada, many unions have been pushing for years for protections against some of the more intrusive ways that AI tools track and manage workers.

“This issue has yet to be put at the center of the radar for unions in North America,” said Valerio De Stefano, a labor law professor at York University in Toronto, who has written extensively on AI’s use in the workplace.

“Unions in Europe are more aware of the uses of technologies from the surveillance standpoint. This is not something that unions in North America have focused on.”

Winning Protections in Europe

At some German companies, labor experts say, workers have won protections that could become models for US and Canadian workers.

At Deutsche Telekom, Germany’s largest telecommunications company, workers have won a prohibition against algorithms firing workers without any human involvement as well as a ban on using data collected by digital monitoring to discipline or dismiss individual workers.

“In Europe, workers have stronger rights to obtain information and participate in decision-making,” Doellgast said. “In the US, where there is a union present, workers have some information rights about AI and hopefully a voice in how it’s used.

Where unions aren’t present, workers have no information rights, and all they see is the effects of the technologies on them.”

Pushback and Union Actions in the US

Mindful of the downsides of AI and algorithmic management, US labor unions are starting to push harder for protections.

For instance, at some call centers, the Communications Workers of America union has won not only requirements that managers notify workers whenever recording their calls but also guarantees that management will only record calls for training purposes to help improve employee performance – and not for evaluating or disciplining workers.

Dan Reynolds, the Communications Workers’ assistant research director, said the union has long been concerned about how new technologies affect jobs.

AI is a new technology often used to speed up the work, deskill the work, make workplaces more stressful and make jobs more demanding,” he said.

Leveraging Worker Input for Technology regulation

Doellgast and De Stefano – who edited a recent academic journal about AI and work – say worker input about new technologies often reduces their invasiveness and other downsides for workers, while making the introduction of technologies smoother and more productive.

Moreover, when workers have some say about new technologies, that often reduces employee resistance to those technologies.

Challenges and Concerns

De Stefano pointed to some problems with using AI to hire and discipline workers. “These machines are, in many cases, unreliable,” he said. “They have certain discriminatory output, especially in hiring.

These machines are basically benchmarked around a standard worker – normally white, prime-age, male workers. Anyone who doesn’t correspond to that benchmark risks being misjudged by these algorithms.”

Labor Unions’ Efforts and Legislative Outlook

The AFL-CIO, the main US labor federation, has created a technology institute to develop expertise and policies on AI and other technologies.

That institute is planning training sessions to educate union leaders and strategists about new technologies.

“In sectors where performance monitoring and algorithmic management are present, you can have a lot of negative impact,” said Amanda Ballantyne, director of the AFL-CIO’s technology institute.

Potential Benefits and Cooperation

The US Chamber of Commerce says AI and analytics can have substantial benefits for workers and productivity, providing insights into worker performance and allowing for targeted coaching and training to improve performance.

AI surveillance, the chamber says, can also help prevent workplace violence by, for instance, monitoring abnormal behavior in the workplace.

“While there are clear benefits” to AI, said Michael Richards, policy director of the chamber’s technology engagement center, “we understand there are legitimate concerns surrounding the use of the technology.”

Future Outlook and Worker Advocacy

Annette Bernhardt, director of the technology and work program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, pointed to the Home-care sector as an example where new technologies make workers’ lives more stressful.

“We need to support unions as they bargain around these technologies. Most important, we need to assure that workers have a seat at the table on these technologies from the outset, not just when they’re being implemented.”

Source: theguardian

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