• Christina J. Colclough

Labour - a Commodity?

In 1919 and again in 1944 world leaders agreed that labour is not a commodity. Yet today, as data is extracted from workers and they are continiously profiled, labour is being turned into a commodity. An object. We are all becoming a bundle of data points, of statistics and of probability analysis. It has to stop.


First some history. In 1919, as part of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, the International Labour Organisation (the ILO) was born out of the belief that universal and lasting peace can only be accomplished if it is based on social justice. Article 427 in the Treaty states:


Again in 1944, in the ILO Declaration of Philidelphia, this article was reaffirmed. Article 1(a) states:

(a) labour is not a commodity;


Now let's fast forward to today. Workers are subjected to digital surveillance and monitoring in various forms. From location tracking, to CCTV, to systems that measure how fast that tap on the keyboard to screen and image captures to check what they are doing, and indeed whether they are sitting in front of the PC or not. Microsoft's Office 365 that turns on the dashboard for employee monitoring by default (see screenshot from https://twitter.com/WolfieChristl below) or Amazon's surveillance of workers and their engangement with union busters Pinkerton in Europe, as reported in Vice on November 23:

Internal emails sent to Amazon's Global Security Operations Center obtained by Motherboard reveal that all the division's team members around the world receive updates on labor organizing activities at warehouses that include the exact date, time, location, the source who reported the action, the number of participants at an event (and in some cases a turnout rate of those expected to participate in a labor action), and a description of what happened, such as a "strike" or "the distribution of leaflets." Other documents reveal that Amazon intelligence analysts keep close tabs on how many warehouse workers attend union meetings; specific worker dissatisfactions with warehouse conditions, such as excessive workloads; and cases of warehouse-worker theft, from a bottle of tequila to $15,000 worth of smart watches.

Monitoring = data

All of these surveillance and monitoring tools extract and create data and data profiles (aka inferences). As reported in previous blog posts we cannot escape this data extraction. it is often hidden from us, and it offers instant feedback to the person/organisation doing the monitoring. The profiles are used for all sorts of probability analyses aimed at predicting our behavior or for efficiency and productivity measuring. Whatever reason a company might have for doing all of these calculations, doesn't remove the fact that they are turning labour into sets of data points, into calculations. Ultimately into objects void of personality, fate, emotions and chance.


It's got to stop


This cannot be accepted. It has to stop. Let's prove Hegel wrong when he famously said:

"The Only Thing We Learn From History Is That We Learn Nothing From History"

The ILO was born out of the realisation of the importance of social justice for world peace. There is nothing just about removing workers' autonomy to form and shape their careers and life free from the manipulations of opaque algorithms. We must not accept that a worker never sees a job annoucement because a string of private-company held probability algorithms have deemed that worker unsuitable for a job. If we accept this, we accept our objectification. And we hand the world's tech companies the ultimate control over our lives, our democracies and our fate. We must demand that our politicians read the writing on the will and take immediate action: the markets in human futures must be banned.