Amazon’s Worker Tracking Could Be Combating Unions

Tracking tools may help the company determine locations more likely to become targets for unionization.

A new report suggests workplace surveillance technology could be used for more than just measuring productivity.

Amazon’s dominance of online retail has made the company a frequent target of criticism on a number of fronts, from the way it treats its workers to its impact on the environment.

The treatment of workers in its distribution centers, in particular, was thrown into focus this year as the coronavirus pandemic made clear just how “essential” Amazon warehouse employees were.

Like many other large businesses, Amazon implemented additional tracking technologies to help combat the virus in its distribution centers. But a new report suggests those technologies might also be helping Amazon maintain stringent worker productivity standards and prevent union organization efforts — two complaints that long predated the current pandemic.

The Open Markets Institute, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group focused on antitrust issues, suggested that Amazon’s tracking tools help the company determine locations more likely to become targets for unionization — and move employees around to deter those efforts.

Amazon’s surveillance systems, Reuters reports, include scanners, wristbands, navigation software, and thermal and security cameras. Open Markets officials noted that workplace surveillance is “almost wholly unregulated and opaque” and gives employers significantly more power over their workers.

The group called on policymakers to ban some of the most invasive practices outright and require companies to get approval for other, less harmful ones.

An Amazon spokesman told Reuters in a statement that the company evaluates its workers over long periods of time, and that it seeks to help underperforming associates with “dedicated coaching.”

The OMI report, however, quoted a security industry veteran indicating he had “never heard of anything” approaching Amazon’s tactics.

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