Author Archives: Winifred R. Poster


Media headlines of late are challenging our presumptions about what is invisible labor.

Amazon, for instance, announced the opening of a store that eliminates the frontline job of cashiers – as well as the checkout lane and all the self-checkout machines. Instead, this work will be done through the automatic scanning of consumer movements around the store and on the shelves. Live employment will be diverted to locations behind the scenes, in labors of preparing and stocking the food.

Likewise, in my home state of Missouri, a waitress at Hooters was fired for failing to do the work of looking right on the job. That labor involved wearing a wig (bought at her own expense) to cover scar on her head after returning from brain surgery, and thus upholding gendered and sexualized appearance rules at work.

Even acts of resistance on the job are telling, like when an African-American employee broke a stained-glass window in the Yale dining hall where he washed dishes. Outraged by a scene depicting slaves picking cotton, he was no longer willing to do the work of idly supporting in a discriminatory organizational environment.

Automation, aesthetic labor, and racial tasks are examples of contemporary ways that the workplace is disempowering workers and submerging the types of tasks they are expected to do. This is the starting point of a new book I co-edited with two legal scholars, Marion Crain and Miriam Cherry.

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Image credit: Vitor Lima, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Image credit: Vitor Lima, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The topic of workplace surveillance made The New York Times last summer with evidence of benevolent kinds of monitoring, that is, surveillance technologies that will – by some interpretations – benefit workers and managers alike. Some of these systems monitor employees in their every movement around the firm, even on breaks. A Bank of America call center, for instance, used these monitoring techniques and found that workers who communicate more closely when off the desk, are more effective when they return. Managers implemented a 15-minute coffee break for workers to talk with each other – and voila! Call-handling productivity increased 10 percent, and employee turnover fell by 70 percent. Happy workers, happy employers, right?

I was struck that the article mentions research from my campus, Washington University, Saint Louis. Lamar Pierce, a faculty member in the Business School (along with colleagues elsewhere), analyzed data from a surveillance program adopted in casual restaurants (i.e., places like Chili’s, Applebee’s, and the Olive Garden). This program algorithmically observes the way wait staff input sales into the computer, to address potential theft (particularly, under-documenting items on the bill, so that servers can pocket more of the cash left on the table). Results of this monitoring were favorable for employers, as employee theft reduced slightly when they were monitored. In addition, and perhaps as an added bonus, sales went up (because waiters were working harder to sell more food and raise the total charges). Even more, this meant gains for workers too, as their tips increased due to the increase in sales. Another case of good times all around.

But all of this makes me wonder: might this euphoria about surveillance be missing the bigger picture of what happens with technological monitoring in the workplace?

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