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6 Ways That Workers Are Being Treated Like Machines

From “shared services” to “value-added” teaching, companies are experimenting with new schemes that turn workers into cogs.

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Workers at non-union multinationals like Amazon and Walmart are under notoriously close watch. A worker from an Amazon fulfillment and distribution center wrote to Gawker, “A dude from loss/prevention spoke to us. This was actually the bulk of our training—to have it pounded into everyone's skull not to steal. He claimed there was 500 visible cameras and over 500 more you could not see in the warehouse.”

Walmart, the world's largest employer, is famous for its employee surveillance—and its health and safety violations. Over the past five years, the company has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration more than 100 times. This month, it agreed to improve safety conditions at 2,800 stores over “repeat and serious” issues.

The contradictions of surveillance and safety are starkest in migrant labor, which fuels production in swaths of Walmart’s supply chain. CJ’s Seafood, for example, has been under fire for providing its guestworkers with squalid working and living conditions, while physically threatening them for not working fast enough and threatening violence against their families back in Mexico for contacting law enforcement.

2. Shared Services

What could be wrong with sharing? When it means pulling staff from different departments and divisions, throwing them all into a new office, dividing and reallotting tasks, and merging departmental responsibilities for maximum efficiency, it can cause systemwide confusion and kill employee morale.

This is the fix for human resource, technology, finance, and other clerical and technical staff at universities with “shared services.” Under shared service schemes plugged by corporate consultants, an IT staffer from one department could be dislocated to a different office and take on IT work for a number of departments—in turn, siphoning off the know-how and relationships that they built in the original department.

By rearranging work in this way, universities claim to save money. Shared services are a form of “insourcing”—or, as one corporate manual puts it, “mining for corporate gold.” In a decentralized system like a university, they can cause chaos. As part of the University of California's “Operational Excellence,” Berkeley is in the process of shipping a subset of clerical and technical workers to a facility 2.5 miles off campus. Alongside dramatic state cuts to higher education, the upshot is speed-up, stress, managerial miscues, and fragmented relationships.

“People are asked to fill roles where they basically don't know what's going on,” says Tanya Smith, a laid-off archaeology department staffer and former president of Berkeley's United Professional and Technical Employees Local 1. “People are left without the support they had previously.”

UC San Franscisco is undergoing a similar overhaul. “Sometimes people will have a specific skill that no one else shares, and when they're gone, we have to come up with a way to fill that void,” says Keith Pavlik, senior publications coordinator at the university's Documents and Media department. With the addition of overall staff reductions, “the expertise that has existed in departments gets diminished so that either people who had longstanding customer relationships or production knowledge are no longer there.”

Like shared services, managed care, the prevailing trend in healthcare delivery, can lead to the consolidation and reparceling of work at the expense of relationships, in this case between patients and workers.

Under managed care, patients are allotted a monthly package of services, and home care agencies are no longer reimbursed directly for the number of hours their workers put in. Smaller agencies, which now get a slice of the overall package rather than a guaranteed hourly rate, are being forced to consolidate or fold. For home care aides, who tend to be low-income women, opportunities for work, as well as in-house training, are greatly diminished.