(GUEST) The Digitization Of Work Is Making Bad Jobs Even Worse

Today’s technologies have exacerbated the potential for employers to use surveillance to discipline their employees.

In her guest post, Kamilah Ebrahim, a Master candidate at the University of Toronto, explores how the digitization of work lets employers watch their employees’ every move down to the keystroke — effectively making bad jobs even worse.

📝 Monthly Round-Up

WhatsApp Aunties and the Spread of Fake News, Rianna Walcott — We’ve all seen the Twitter jokes about WhatsApp aunties and their chain messages. In this article, Walcott pivots away from treating WhatsApp aunties as a joke or spectacle and explores some of the reasons why disinformation spreads to know how to combat it.

‘Silent Pandemic’: How Women In the Middle East and North Africa Are Threatened Online, Yasmin Allouche — Thanks to the coronavirus, people are spending more and more time online, which comes with its own consequences. Allouche looks at how threats and abuse against Middle Eastern and North African women online are worsening during the pandemic.

Defund Facial Recognition, Malika Devich-Cyril — I, personally, advocate for facial recognition to be burned — literally, metaphorically, however — and I’m not alone in that. Here, Devich-Cyril’s outline of facial recognition’s impact on policing and its use against protesters points to one clear solution: get rid of it.

In the past few months in Toronto, white kids breaking social distancing protocols in Trinity Bellwoods Park got social distancing circles, but Black kids got arrested. It is no coincidence that this is the same city where Black people are 20 times more likely to be shot dead by the police than their white counterparts. 

For a city that prides itself on diversity, we are still deeply segregated. And while Canadians have a hard time reconciling the existence of racism in our society with the Canadian politeness that we’re supposed to be known for, this segregation is deeply apparent when it comes to access to jobs and the quality of work that our economy assigns us. 

When assessing equity in the labour market, not only should we consider access to work (i.e. employment or unemployment) as a measure of success or failure, but we also need to consider the quality of work being offered. As the workplace increasingly becomes a site of surveillance, we have to consider how constant tracking and monitoring of employees contributes to overall job quality for BIPOC. 

Economists usually think of “good” jobs as ones where the worker has a relative amount of agency and control over their work environments. These workers are usually offered high wages, training opportunities, and stable work commitments. In other words if you’re in a good job, you can probably exercise some control over your work life and be pretty sure that your job will be there tomorrow. In contrast, a “bad” job is something clerical or manual, where a worker lacks agency and stability, or experiences high turnover. 

After the Great Recession in 2009, we saw record levels of unemployment in BIPOC communities coupled with the eradication of generations of built wealth. But the impacts of the Great Recession went far beyond that as it solidified the boundary between “good” jobs and “bad” jobs in our city -- a boundary that is increasingly being drawn on racial lines. 

In Canada, Black people and other visible minorities are more likely to be offered a low paying or “bad” job, even when compared to white counterparts with similar levels of education and experience. Now, we are entering a new economic era defined by the coronavirus pandemic, working from home, and the related economic downturn. In its wake, what’s likely to remain is not a lack of work, but a maldistribution of good work. 

In the era of increased digitization of work, — like working from home — companies are taking advantage of increased opportunities for surveillance in the workplace. This much can be clearly seen with the work-from-home boom prompted by the pandemic as workplaces require their employees to download tracking software like Hubstaff and TSheets. Even the implementation of platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams allows employers to track an employees online presence around the clock, especially if an employee is being asked to download these platforms onto their personal devices. 

Online platforms and the digitization of work can be an enabling function for some jobs –  like workplaces using Slack to create virtual spaces for collaboration and community. But surveillance usually operates as a disciplinary function for bad jobs, meaning the increased digitization of work is likely to make bad jobs worse. 

Workplace monitoring has always existed on some level in capitalist economies, but today’s technologies have exacerbated the potential for employers to use surveillance to discipline their employees. Most employers are now able to track and monitor employees, gathering highly detailed performance related data. Down to the keystroke, your employer knows what you’re doing, and how long you’re doing it for. This is especially prominent in service jobs like retail or delivery where performance is highly quantified (the number of sales or deliveries made). 

In these jobs, employee performance is measured in data, and can often have disciplinary consequences in an employees work life. For example, Amazon delivery workers get more and better shifts depending on how many deliveries they make per hour. More deliveries, means better work and better pay, incentivizing workers to move faster but also to take on riskier work. 

So what does this increase in surveillance mean for employees and work quality? 

For bad jobs, where employees already lacked agency, it will likely make them worse. Employees working these jobs are now being hyper-surveilled in the digital workplace. On the employer’s end, that access to information and data directly translates to relative power in decision-making. There is an inherent epistemic power given to those who get to watch, but not to those who are watched. 

Who gets to decide what technologies are used? Who has access to the data being collected? Who gets to decide how to use this data for decision making? These are all questions that those employed in bad jobs are not empowered to answer. These workers, who are disproportionately BIPOC employees, have less of a say in the technological decisions made in their workplaces than those employed in good jobs. And, it’s not easy to dissent. Under the constant eye of an employer, collective workers’ action and unionizing is almost impossible, further reinforcing the lack of agency caused by constant surveillance.  

This is the paradox of surveillance; its hyper-presence is integral to the erasure of BIPOC voices in the workplace. As we begin conceptualizing how we divide work in the post-Covid economy, employee surveillance needs to be an important part of the conversation.

Kamilah Ebrahim is a Masters candidate at the University of Toronto studying Human Centered Data Science. She is specifically interested in the economic implications of biased technologies for racialized communities in Toronto. Hit her up to talk anything data, tech and race or catch her on Twitter @kammmi3. 

📌 Organizing

OpenMedia — Describing itself as a “community-driven organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free”, OpenMedia has multiple campaigns to watch be aware of like their work to ban the police use of facial recognition technology in Canada.

MIGRANTE Canada — Recommended to me by a friend, MIGRANTE Canada works specifically with Filipino migrants. Of its work, the organization says, “only through fighting for a homeland with a just and humane society can we stop forced migration and live in that society where we do not have to leave in order to survive.”

Protect Protesters Against State Surveillance — I’ve shouted out Justice for Muslims Collective before. This Thursday, they’re holding a joint teach-in with some dope organizers on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. RSVP here.


We See The Horizon: Abolition Now! — Normally, I limit the roundups to three each. However, Silver Press’ abolitionist programming starts before NAZAR’s next issue and I wanted y’all to be aware. There will be an event each Monday in August with some incredible scholars — take a look at their Twitter to see the full lineup!