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Sunday, November 27, 2005

RFID and the high-tech war on workers

With the emerging market of RFID one question not much discussed is the effect it will have on workers. We're used to bizarre arguments for RFID. For instance, tech boosters often cite convenience as a prime benefit likely to derive from RFID. Payment transactions can be reduced to just a few seconds or less, they argue, thus increasing convenience for the consumer. A convenience, it should be pointed out, demanded by consumers only to the extent that the capitalist has already so successfully intruded on our free time through work and other systems of control. Technological capitalism's unending quest to squeeze every last drop of efficiency out of us isn't just as simple as the drive for profit; though profit clearly underlies the pathology of capitalism, modern technology significantly enhances capitalism's ability to tag, count and account for every little part of its domain, to the point of obsession.

And so, it comes as no surprise that RFID seriously enhances the capitalist's ability to control her workforce. Though RFID proponents claim that the technology won't destroy jobs, that's not really the point. What RFID will do is restructure the American workplace in the further interest of the capitalists. The exploitation of workers will increase and with it the amount of work expected from us. Likewise our ability to resist will be seriously challenged.

In order to distract us from the human implications, industry journals love to camouflage their discussion of the issue in jargon, as in this case, from Productiondaily.com:
The RFID factory automator system reduces missed tasks, and allows a greater speed on the production line, the company claims.
Or this case, from productivitybyrfid.com,
We use RFID as a tool to improve manufacturing and distribution processes in multiple industries. Productivity goals include decreasing set up time and maintenance time, increasing asset utilization, eliminating surplus equipment, and decreasing labor at shipping/receiving and picking/put-away. We strive to create systems that put information where it is most valuable - into the hands of the user.
And, without a doubt, "the user" here referenced is the boss.

Even when the technology's implications for workers are dealt with more directly, it's still framed as if the increased rate of productivity and job surveillance will be good for the worker in the end. For instance, in this case the use of the positive word "reward" serves to distract from the larger point of increased workload and speed and decreased autonomy on the job.
[The boss wanted to] develop a way to measure the productivity of the company's packers. The vendor wanted to establish an incentive program to reward its most productive workers...
Continuing,
"The idea behind this system is to benefit the worker first, who stands to make more money based on productivity, and then also the company, through increased productivity. So it's a win-win [scenario]," says Welt, who notes that this system could be used in other labor-intensive assembly or packing environments. This would enable the hardest workers to earn the highest wages.
But, of course, capitalism never "benefit[s] the worker first," so the claim is ridiculous. Not to mention that any such rewards would necessarily come through increased competition with fellow workers, thus undermining worker solidarity. Most unions and workers seem oblivious to the looming disaster of RFID. One that seems to have somewhat gotten it is the GMB in Britain.
The 700,000-member General, Municipal, Boiler makers and Allied Trade Union is demanding the European Commission outlaw radio tags in ware houses. Not on merchandise, but on workers.
Workers are right to be concerned about RFID in this sense, but, as this opinion piece on baselinemag.com points out, we need to broaden our critique to recognize that RFID doesn't have to be on our physical person to increase our subjugation at work. And, as the article rightfully points out,
...even without embedding tags in uniforms or armbands, efficiency already can be monitored with video cameras. Allowing workers to take off armbands when on private time doesn't really change the calculus, either. You can still figure out when a timeā€“out is being taken.
We are entering a new reorganization of work, similar to that of Fordism, automation and Soviet Stakhanovism before it. The only thing holding this transformation back is the current relatively high cost of RFID. But this is all about to change thanks to three factors. First, government intervention in the market through the defense budget will drive costs down. Second, demands by corporations like Wal-Mart for RFID incorporation from manufacturers will force compliance. Third, nanotech will drive down the cost by reducing the size and production costs of RFID.

It's time for workers to add to our struggle the fight against technologies like RFID. So far, technology-related demands made by unions have been quite limited. The failure of the recent Safeway strike to address the automated check out machines, sure to de-skill workers and decrease pay and worker power over time, highlights this lack of vision.

Some argue that RFID isn't the next big thing. But, Wal-Mart and the military aside, even cutting edge technology firms like TiVo think otherwise. The company filed for a patent this week on a "personal video recorder (PVR) that recognizes viewer preferences through an RFID chip embedded in clothing, jewelry or 'inserted somewhere [in] the user's body.'" Through this process, TiVo hopes to tailor media (read: ads) to subtle preferences divined through RFID in the environment or on (or in) the user's person.

Those further interested in the topic of worker resistance to technology might consider picking up a copy of David F. Noble's excellent book, "Progress Without People: In Defense of Luddism."

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