Tracking and tracing bodies

Anja Kanngieser December 06, 2011


New technologies of governance, labour and the logistics industries.

The rise of complex and networked global supply chains have coincided with a calibration of technologies used to monitor not only the consignments within those chains, but also the workers and machines that move them. Over the past decade, supply chain management has been employing Information and Communications Technology (ICT) hardware and software to optimise performance and production. Through the logistics of transit and warehousing, Just-In-Time processing is demanding the capacity to determine and, as much as possible, standardise the speed, rhythm and flow of commodities. In this state, the promotion of a particular kind of regulatory power is exercised on the level of life through the regulation and increased velocity of each working moment. The management of bodies and commodities now encompasses the entire spectrum of movement, from the minute gestures of box packers and the pathways of cranes in the warehouse, to the rest breaks of freight drivers, the call content and duration of call centre workers, and the passage of commodities shipped around the globe.


This paper will introduce some of the most pervasive mechanisms used to govern workers along the nodes of the supply chain, namely RFID tagging, GPS telematics and voice directed order picking. Looking at these three contemporary technologies, I will briefly survey how they function, their historical-technical contexts and some of the effects they are having on the bodies and conditions of workers, specifically the increased demands on workers to produce more labour in less time, issues around data confidentiality and manipulation, and an intensification of labour precariousness and alienation through casualised and flexible contracts in industries with high turnover rates. 


A techno-historical exposition of worker surveillance and discipline can begin with RFID or Radio Frequency Identification, as it is perhaps the most prolific technology for tracking and tracing available. RFID is a system of electronic tagging, which can both be used to identify and trace animate and inanimate objects and beings, and store information. The technologies used for RFID evolved from centuries of research into electromagnetic theory and waves (radio waves). In the 1990’s a breakthrough occurred which saw the integration of RFID into supply chain management and article location, namely the shift to microwave tags with a single integrated circuit, resulting in a reduction in size and cost at the same time as an increase in functionality and reliability (Hunt et al, 2007). This led to the re-exploration of RFID as a means to manage commercial items alongside barcodes. The continued physical contraction and reformatting of the tag, of late seen in the new adhesive ‘smart labels’, has had unparalleled consequences for the inventory and management of goods along the supply chain, as Wal-Mart’s logistics juggernaut shows (Supply Chain Digest, 2009; Brunn, 2006).


The use of wireless technology like RFID and RTLS (Real Time Location Systems) has had significant effects in the workplace. Tags have been embedded in workers bodies, and in accessories, such as ID cards, clothing, badges and wristbands, both to authorise access and to oversee the use and movement of items and people around the premises (Pagnattaro, 2008: 241-243). While the RFID tags are themselves privacy neutral, much has been written on the legal issues surrounding their application (Roth, 2006; Ball, 2010; Weinberg, 2008; Balkovich et al, 2005; Smith, 2007). A number of key questions have become clear: What information is gathered and how will it be used? How long will data be stored and who has access to it? What notice will be given to employees? What weight will be given to consent and due process? How will identity be verified against theft or misuse of tags? What safeguards will be put in place to protect workers from the access to their private information by law enforcement?


These concerns are founded given the increasing introduction of automated and RFID systems to intervene in the everyday governance of workers, especially in the public services and logistics. There have already been calls for the heavy legislation, even banning, of RFID and GPS to track staff by the UK GMB general workers union on the basis that it is dehumanising (McCue, 2005). A 2005 Rand report showed that RFID was used not to simply allocate access but to store very specific data on employee’s whereabouts and activities. Evidence has also shown that RFID tagging is linked very explicitly to centralised database time and attendance recording, which is also connected to the payroll system, as offered by corporations such as Wasp Time, Control Module, Absolute and Active Wave who furnish entire management and security packages including tracking tags to be worn by employees, and readers.


Like RFID, GPS (the Global Positioning System) is a mode of invasive technology that is becoming more widely deployed in the logistics industries to closely monitor the rhythms and temporalities of workers. GPS is a solar-powered global navigation satellite system that pinpoints temporal (speed and time) and spatial (longitude, latitude, elevation) location. It was originally developed for military purposes by the US Department of Defense and made its official debut during the 1991 Gulf War to target bombs and guide missiles, as well as being used for land, sea and air navigation. GPS has particular relevance to the logistics industries, particularly with regard to the tracking and tracing of goods and hardware, including containers and transportation.


One of the ways that GPS has been assimilated into the logistics industries and supply chain management is through telematics or ICTs, the convergence of telecommunications and informatics. In this context telematics includes the sending and receiving of spatial and temporal location data, as well as the storage of such information. Automotive navigation systems stand as a central example. In logistics GPS telematics are combined with technologies such as cell site tracking, wireless tracking and, of course, RFID. By 2010 55% of UK logistics companies were using inland vehicle-tracking systems, a significant leap from 25% in 2008. The most common reasons given for the installation of telematic devices was to increase productivity and to maintain environmental standards (Loughran, 2010).


The potential environmental benefits of such monitoring are not to be negated. The ambivalence lies, of course, in the fact that telematics lead to comprehensive accounts of the vehicle’s, and driver’s, activities. When the power to monitor seatbelt use, the exact location and duration of rest breaks, and to dictate routes is exercised, then opposition will occur. This ties in closely to the other predominant argument for telematics: productivity and customer demand. In combination with vehicle-GPS, employees are tracked via cell phone GPS and PDA’s. Various industry reports and sites are recounting narratives of workers ‘misusing’ company time and resources, and have embraced GPS as a means of detecting truancy and falsification of activities (Blish and Stiller, 2009; Nietermeyer, 2010; Ly, 2011). The other side, however, is that ‘objective’ digital data is still interpreted subjectively, as was evinced by an event recounted to me by a UK Unite union researcher during an interview at the Unite London offices on 10 May 2011. The event concerned a UK worker whose employer suspected that drivers were taking unauthorised breaks outside bakeries. The employer instructed the operators to notify him of all instances where drivers were parked within a particular radius of such businesses. Disciplinary action was begun against the worker on this presumptive basis, and it was not until the union assessed his delivery reports that it was made clear that the delivery location legitimately fell within the confines of the bakery radius, and that no breach had actually occurred.


This capacity for employers to control the velocities and temporalities of the laboring body is critical to all three surveillance mechanisms being examined here. Like RFID and GPS, Voice Directed Order Picking or voice picking primarily operates to manage the passage and pace of workers through the workplace with the aim of maximising efficiencies. Voice picking is used to instruct workers via headsets and microphones. It consists of a series of automated verbal commands issued from a company’s warehouse management system, which recognises the response from the worker through speech recognition and speech synthesis software and converts it into data. It is commonly used in warehousing for order picking, goods reception, pallet storage and inventory.


Over the past decade this software has been consolidated within global supply chains, as well as within communications, automotive and computing industries. Distribution centres in the grocery and food sectors were the first to utilise speech recognition and synthesising programs (Wallis, 1998). Like RFID and GPS, these systems have been incorporated to maximise speed and minimise error in production and distribution.


Akin to RFID, voice picking works on the radio frequency band and similarly relies on wireless technologies. Workers are supplied with a belt-worn voice terminal (wearable mobile computer), with a headset and microphone. The voice terminal communicates with the warehouse management software via radio frequencies over wireless LAN’s (local area networks). The warehouse management system transmits entire ‘pick lists’ to the employee’s terminal, which converts it into computer generated speech commands. The worker is directed to each location and is continuously monitored in every task (Miller, 2004). By closely supervising workers through vocal instruction and evaluating duration spent on each activity through real-time confirmation, employers control the pace at which employees must work, and as with RFID tracking, this pace is arbitrated by the employer (Miller, 2004: 4).


This has been cause for dissent by workers and unions since 2005 at the UK store Asda (a subsidiary of the anti-union Wal-Mart corporation). It has been argued that due to the productivity pressures placed on workers, ‘battery farm’ conditions have been established, which threaten worker’s physical and mental health and safety. The union has identified three areas of complaint: firstly, the expected speed of pick rates, secondly, the risk of repetitive strain injury associated with increased pick rates, and thirdly, the tracking of workers. The demanded increase in productivity has been criticised as unrealistic by unions, for instance Asda’s increase in the target daily pick rate from 1,100 to 1,400 boxes. While boxes have variations in weight and shape, the original pick rate meant that individual workers were already moving between approximately two and ten tonnes of product by hand daily, with each box weighing between five to twenty kilos at a rate of around two and five boxes per minute.  According to the GMB representative for Asda’s distribution depot, ‘asking an Asda worker to shift 1,400 boxes a day is equivalent of asking someone to workout in a gym for eight hours a day every working day. It is equivalent of Asda asking their staff to work themselves to death’ (Logistics Manager, 2006).


As with RFID, one means to assuage workers apprehensions has been the introduction of bonus systems for workers who pick to, or above, the target rate. But as has been pointed out, such systems directly illustrate the use of these technologies to track how long workers take on particular tasks (Meczes, 2006). By concatenating the technology to wage systems, workers are allocated a set amount of time to move between point A and point B, and any surplus means docking bonus pay. This is the same in the case of toilet and rest breaks.


There is a final point to be made here, which traces out differentials of race, class and pathology through the biometrics of the voice in speech recognition. In a low-skill work environment that is significantly migrant and contractually precarious, the ability for software to accommodate diversities of speech and language is imperative. Two kinds of voice recognition systems are used in warehouse operations: speaker-dependent, which require speakers to ‘train’ the application to identify their unique utterances by repeating characters, numbers and words over time, and speaker-independent, which do not require calibration relying rather on a pre-existing archive of voice patterns from which statistical models are derived. Both are contingent on assumptions that may conflict with the realities of the distribution centre or factory labour force.


This final point flags some of the wider sites of contestation around workplace surveillance, governance and discrimination, which signals critical directions for further investigation. Given the pervasive nature of tracking and tracing technologies, and the effects that they engender, it is possible to contend that surveillance and monitoring are now crucial to the exercise of power within global supply chains and logistics industries. It has been proposed that surveillance has become not only a technique of governance, but its substitute: surveillance as a regulatory mechanism, replete with assumptions and objectives beyond mere data collection (Catá Backer, 2008). This has become all the more apparent in an era of outsourcing and subcontracting, especially when, as legal scholar Larry Catá Backer (2008) suggests, private institutions and corporations are undertaking sovereign functions and public bodies are engaging in the market. In this condition, the power to decide what information can be gathered on whom, how it can be analysed, judged and justified to serve a particular purpose indicates that debates on how technologies such as RFID, GPS and voice picking are used need also to comprehend the lines of race, gender, class, education, and physical ability that they map out.





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