What if your employer makes you wear a wristband that can track your every move, and that even nudged you via vibrations when it judged that you were doing something wrong? What if your supervisor could identify every time you paused to scratch or fidget, and for how long you took a bathroom break? What may sound like dystopian fiction could become a reality for Amazon warehouse workers around the world. Perhaps the only thing as troubling as the idea of replacing human workers with intelligent machines is the idea of using machines to monitor human workers’ every move, but that’s essentially what Amazon’s tracking wristbands are designed to do.
On January 30, 2018, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) granted Amazon two patents for wristbands that track workers’ hands. Yes, hands. The tracking is made possible by ultrasonic devices positioned in strategic areas of a warehouse or factory. Amazon is an online shopping from the earth’s biggest selection of books, magazines, music, DVDs, videos, electronics, computers, software, apparel & accessories, shoes, jewelry, tools & hardware, housewares, furniture, sporting goods, beauty & personal care, broadband & dsl, gourmet food & just about anything else. They announced that they will be issuing patented designs for a wristband that can precisely track where warehouse employees are placing their hands and use vibrations to nudge them in a different direction. The company has won two patents for a wristband that could track workers’ movements and breaks. It was unclear if Amazon planned to actually manufacture the tracking device and have employees wear it. Amazon already has a reputation for a workplace culture that thrives on a hard-hitting management style.
Big tech is embracing Big Brother.
The wristbands would emit ultrasonic sound pulses or radio transmissions to detect where a workers’ hands are in relation to inventory bins. If a worker reaches for the wrong product, the wristband would vibrate as part of a “haptic feedback system” that could then steer the employee to the right bin. Amazon insists the wristbands would help workers be more efficient, and make it easier to locate products in the company’s warehouses. While the patent describes this tech as a time-saving system, tracking workers in this way seems dystopian. That’s especially true for Amazon, a company that has been accused of enforcing intolerable conditions at its warehouses, like timed toilet breaks, 55-hour work weeks, and packing timers that ensure a worker is packing enough boxes per hour. In January 2017, Amazon said it planned to hire 100,000 more workers, with the majority of postings for warehouse jobs.
The patents, which were filed in 2016, outline Amazon’s vision for an inventory management system that uses wristbands to track workers’ performance and help them locate products in vast warehouses. It is called the Wristband Haptic Feedback System, the series of patents shows a system where employees are guided to “item bins” by tracking hand movements in real time using ultrasound technology. Messages are then relayed to the employee using small vibrations emitted from the wristband’s bracket. If their hand moves away from a product, a vibration lets them know they are going in the wrong direction.
Amazon apparently wants to crack the whip. The idea of being tracked by their bosses might not sit well with Amazon workers, 500 of whom went on strike last November on Black Friday at Italy’s main distribution hub after disappointing talks over pay. Six warehouses in Germany saw strikes on the same day. Amazon has already embraced faster employees in the form of worker robots and delivery drones, as well as no employees at all with its Amazon Go, a convenience store that does away with cashiers.
There is also a fear that the wristband-wearing workers will one day be replaced with robots.
“Imagine that a robot could handle 90% of cases autonomously and would report a problem for the other 10%.” You could easily have one worker supervising 3 to 5 robots, maybe more. The worker only needs to handle the exceptions. That could result in huge headcount reductions.” For said. News of the wristbands almost instantly cause a stir on social media, but Amazon in a statement said they “speculation about this patent is misguided”.
The e-retailer is hardly the first company to want to make use of wearables to improve worker efficiency. Several others have pursued similar initiatives, albeit without the dystopian sci-fi feel. In any case, Amazon’s tracking wristbands may not move beyond the patent stage, but if the wearables do find their way onto warehouse floors, workers will have to adjust to an entirely new level of supervision. The wristbands are, according to the patent documents, first spotted by Geek Wire, designed as a labor-saving measure to keep track of products throughout the warehouse. A less generous interpretation would be that the wristbands provide Amazon management with new workplace surveillance capabilities that can identify the workers wasting time scratching, fidgeting or dilly-dallying.
Amazon already has a reputation for turning low-paid staff into “human robots” – working alongside thousands of proper robots – carrying out repetitive packaging tasks as fast as possible in an attempt to hit goals set by handheld computers. This month, the 24-year-old warehouse worker Aaron Callaway described having just 15 seconds to scan items and place them into the right cart during his night shifts at an Amazon warehouse in the UK. “My main interaction is with the robots,” he said. In 2016, a BBC investigation found that agency workers making Amazon deliveries reported defecating in bags, speeding and falling asleep at the wheel as they desperately tried to hit ambitious delivery targets issued by an Amazon logistics app.
Critics say such wristbands raise concerns about privacy and would add a new layer of surveillance to the workplace, and that the use of the devices could result in employees being treated more like robots than human beings. Current and former Amazon employees said the company already used similar tracking technology in its warehouses and said they would not be surprised if it put the patents into practice.