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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The age of omniscient capitalism

I stumbled upon an article on RFID Journal today that offers further examples of the way RFID will be used to discipline and further exploit workers on the job. Jonathan Collins wrote last month about the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport's use of RFID-enabled cell phones in the management and distribution of work.

The system tracks the workers for more 'efficient' assignment of work tasks. Previous to the new system, workers had been checking in manually via non-RFID cell phones with a call center that regulated the jobs, with a certain amount of flexibility, since the workers were responsible for checking in themselves.
"We didn't used to know exactly where ground staff were when it came to assigning new tasks," says Jari Viitanen, VP of business development at Northport. "They could be calling from anywhere, so assigning tasks was not based on their location."
But, thanks to the new RFID technology, management is cracking down on worker autonomy.
According to Northport, the system streamlines the allocation, workflow and reporting of passenger-services, baggage-handling and check-in tasks by providing a way for the airport work-management system to use data on the exact location of ground staff after they complete each task.
Here's how it works:
Holding the telephone's RFID reader within 10 centimeters of a location tag triggers the phone to transmit the ID numbers of the phone and tag automatically. This informs the airport work-management system of that person's location and availability for another task. This real-time data enables the Northport work-management system to determine which staff members are closest to the sites of remaining tasks, thereby saving time and creating efficiency in the work scheduling.

Work assignments are then transmitted automatically to the phone and appear on its screen. With the previous system, personnel would have to call in and wait, or browse multiple voice menus to learn their next task. Now, a worker presents an existing RFID-enabled identity card into the handset used for that shift, and the phone's RFID interrogator reads the tag on the card and logs the employee in.
The airport is currently using about 70 handsets and has slightly more RFID-reading stations, but management hopes to expand the program to include more ground staff, which would involve 110 more units.

This reminded me of another story that I read on the same site not long ago. The company responsible for managing the London subway has RFID tagged the cars and cruelly uses the technology to extract more work from the cleaning workers who tend to the vehicles.
"The third party we pay to clean the trains has a work order to carry out, and we were not confident that they were doing so," says Martyn Capes, technical asset manager at Tube Lines. "We know how long its takes to carry out the work order properly, and RFID gave us a way to track exactly when cleaning work began and finished."

The same RFID inlays have been sandwiched within one window of each passenger car so that the cleaning process inside the cars can also be tracked. Tube Lines has tagged 172 passenger cars and engines as part of the trial. The cleaning staff is employing some of the 242 Symbol Technologies MC9000 mobile computers already in use at Tube Lines, fitted with RFID reader modules for the trial.

Tube Lines' cleaning staff is required to carry out a number of tasks in each car. A list of the required duties is automatically uploaded to each cleaner's handheld computer. When a cleaner completes a task indicated on the computer, he or she marks it off as being finished. Once all tasks have been carried out, the worker places the computer within a few inches of the RFID tag in the window to signal the car has been cleaned. That RFID read also provides a trigger for the handheld computer to upload its cleaning data over a wireless LAN covering the train depot. This informs Tube Line's back-office systems that the car has been cleaned.

"Using handhelds and RFID has transformed a 13-step process of getting work carried out to just two steps, and a 10-day paper-based system into real-time notification of completed work," says Capes.
But, disgruntled workers won't be able to make up for the speed-up, loss of freedom and increased exploitation by taking home company property. Management plans on RFID tagging "maintenance equipment and tools to manage its inventory and working practices more efficiently." Look for them to pop up everywhere. "[A]n RFID tag costs just pennies," points out technical asset manager Martyn Capesat.

In a recent Globe and Mail article on RFID and business, capitalists and managers practically drooled at the possibilities the technology affords them.
"We call it the Internet of things," said Art Smith, chief executive officer of EPCglobal Canada, a Toronto-based electronics standards organization that hopes to see all RFID systems integrated into a massive worldwide network one day. "This technology allows you to re-engineer how you do business."
Smith has tagged every one of the 6000 files in his office. He estimates the technology saves him $25,000 a year.

Ford Motor Company material flow launch manager, Alex Kumfert, raved about it: "What we're taking this to is live data, real-time performance . . . and getting those trailers on-site and off-site as efficiently as possible."

In her June 29 article, "On the right track with RFID," Padmaja Krishnan lists the many, many uses that RFID offers obsessive compulsive bosses. Many of them are familiar to regular readers here, but it all comes down to this corporate doublespeak:
With increasing business benefits, decreasing costs and more number of applications and solutions becoming available, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is finding acceptance and adoption across all verticals. Retail ports, industries, warehouses, parking lots, toll roads, travel/car fleet units, banks, airports, judiciary and various departments of government are significant adopters of this technology. While priorities vary for industries, the bottom line expectations essentially remain the same. Most companies are adopting RFID technology for management of security, access control, logistics as well as real-time information access and update with tags, sensors, readers and state-of-the-art business application systems.
In other words, more exploitation and less autonomy, more power for the boss and less for workers, and a future "internet of things" that will attempt to know where everything in the world is at all times. Welcome to the age of omniscient capitalism.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

RFID is a joke.
With a little konw-how freely available on the web,
it can and is hacked daily.
RFID is another lazy, coporate funded "technology"
that will just raise prices.

Fuck the controlling government and corporate America.


Sat Jul 15, 08:31:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Phoenix Insurgent said...

The increasing specialization of workplace resistance, not to mention the task of reprogramming an entire workplace in order to regain some autonomy, ought to give pause to those who would dismiss the effect of RFID in our workplaces.

Automation could, potentialy have been hacked as well, unfortunately the authoritarian structure of work and the shifting of control of production off the shop floor (both intentional results of the technology) and into the hands of management and specialists had the opposite effect. Work became regimented and struggle became harder.

Sun Jul 16, 06:56:00 PM 2006  

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