QR codes replace service staff as pandemic spurs automation in US

American workers in manufacturing plants and distribution centres have long worried that their employers would find ways to replace them with robots and artificial intelligence, but the Covid-19 crisis has brought that threat to service workers, too. Businesses are increasingly turning to automated tools for customer service tasks long done by low-wage staff. But rather than robots, it is the ubiquitous QR matrix bar codes that are replacing humans [Editor’s note: the link may be paywalled]. Financial Times:
Many restaurants have begun to experiment with QR codes and order management systems such as Toast that allow diners to order food to their table from their phones instead of with human servers. Grocery stores have increased their investments in self-checkout kiosks that replace human cashiers, and more convenience stores including Circle K are experimenting with the computer vision technology pioneered by Amazon Go to allow customers to make purchases without standing in a checkout line at all. The shifts mean that some of the 1.7m leisure and hospitality jobs and 270,000 retail jobs the US economy has lost since its February 2020 high are unlikely to return.

Uber and Lyft Can’t Find Drivers Because Gig Work Sucks

You may have noticed recently that an Uber ride is more expensive than it used to be. As ride-hail companies Uber and Lyft hike prices to record heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, much commentary has settled on explaining this as a consequence of a “labor shortage” largely motivated by a lack of proper financial incentives. Drivers, the story goes, saw the new cash bonuses offered by companies to lure workers back as insufficient. Some, perhaps, decided they were not worth the risk of getting infected with COVID-19 or one of its budding variants, while other analyses suggested drivers were content with living on stimulus funds rather than money from driving. At the same time, the firms began curtailing subsidies that kept prices low enough to attract riders and work towards monopoly. Together, this has left us with a sudden and massive spike in ride-hail prices; Gridwise, a ride-hail driver assistance app, estimated that Uber has increased its prices by 79 percent since the second quarter of 2019.

While Uber and Lyft are reportedly thinking about offering new perks such as education, career, and expense programs, analysts admit these don’t strike at core problems with the gig economy that were driving workers away before COVID-19 hit and are making it difficult to attract them now. In conversations with Motherboard, former and current ride-hail drivers pointed to a major factor for not returning: how horrible it is to work for Uber and Lyft. For some workers, this realization came long before the pandemic reared its head, and for others, the crisis hammered it home. Motherboard has changed some drivers’ names or granted them anonymity out of their fear of retaliation.
“If I kept driving, something was going to break,” said Maurice, a former driver in New York who spent four years working for Uber and Lyft before the pandemic. “I already go nights without eating or sleeping. My back hurt, my joints hurt, my neck hurt, I felt like a donkey. Like a slave driving all the time.”

“I’ve been driving for six years. Uber has taken at least 10,000 pounds in commission from me each year! They take 20 percent of my earnings, then offer me 200 pounds,” Ramana Prai, a London-based Uber driver, told Motherboard. “I don’t understand how they can take 60,000 pounds from me, then offer nothing when I’m in need. How can I provide for my partner and two kids with this? My employer has let me down.”

“I woke up every day asking how long I could keep it up, I just didn’t feel like a person,” Yona, who worked for Lyft in California for the past six years until the pandemic, told Motherboard. “I got two kids, my mother, my sister, I couldn’t see them. And I was doing all this for them but I could barely support them, barely supported myself.”

“I was making even less than my sister and I was probably less safe too,” Yona’s sister, Destiny, told Motherboard. “She got out back in the spring, I hopped on and was coming back negative some days. I tried UberEats and DoorDash to see if that was any better, but stopped after a friend was almost robbed on a delivery. Okay, so the options are get covid or get robbed, then guess what: I’m doing none of them.”

Motherboard argues that the degrading working conditions, as well as the poor pay, “are structurally necessary for ride-hail companies. They were necessary to attract and retain customers with artificially low prices, to burn through drivers at high rates that frustrate labor organizing, and bolster the narrative of gig work as temporary, transient, and convenient. It’s no wonder, then, that drivers aren’t coming back.”

Google Says Staff Have No Right to Protest Its Choice of Clients

Google employees have no legal right to protest the company’s choice of clients, the internet giant told a judge weighing the U.S. government’s allegations that its firings of activists violated the National Labor Relations Act.

“Even if Google had, for the sake of argument, terminated the employees for their protest activities — for protesting their choice of customers — this would not violate the Act,” Google’s attorney Al Latham said in his opening statement Tuesday at a labor board trial.

National Labor Relations Board prosecutors have accused the Alphabet Inc. unit of violating federal law by illegally firing five employees for their activism. Three of those workers’ claims had originally been dismissed under President Donald Trump, because agency prosecutors concluded that their opposition to the company collaborating with immigration enforcement wasn’t legally protected, according to their lawyer. But that decision was reversed after President Joe Biden fired and replaced the labor board’s general counsel.

Google has been roiled over the past four years by a wave of activism by employees challenging management over issues including treatment of sub-contracted staff, handling of sexual harassment, and a contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which some of the fired workers accessed internal information about and circulated a petition against.

Google has denied wrongdoing, saying in a Monday statement that it encourages “open discussion and debate” but terminated staff in response to violations of its data security policies. “Google terminated these employees not because of their protest as such, but because in the pursuit of their protest, they accessed highly confidential information that they had no right to access,” its attorney told the judge Tuesday.

Hundreds Riot, Thousands Protest at iPhone Factory in India

The international news agency AFP reports on “a violent rampage at a Taiwanese-run iPhone factory in southern India” leading to over 100 arrests. About 2,000 workers were involved in the protest, reports the Verge, citing the Indian Express newspaper.

The workers are protesting over allegations of unpaid wages and exploitation, according to AFP. “Local media reported workers saying they had not been paid for up to four months and were being forced to do extra shifts…”
Workers at the Taiwanese-run Wistron Infocomm Manufacturing near Bangalore smashed glass panels with rods and flipped cars on their side… CCTV cameras, fans and lights were torn down, while a car was set on fire, footage shared on social media showed…

A local trade union leader alleged that there was “brutal exploitation” of factory workers in sweatshop conditions at the iPhone manufacturing plant. “The state government has allowed the company to flout the basic rights,” Satyanand, who uses one name, told The Hindu newspaper… Labour unrest is not uncommon in India, with workers paid poorly and given few or no social security benefits.

Google Illegally Spied On Workers Before Firing Them, US Labor Board Alleges

Google violated US labor laws by spying on workers who were organizing employee protests, then firing two of them, according to a complaint to be filed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) today. The complaint names two employees, Laurence Berland and Kathryn Spiers, both of whom were fired by the company in late 2019 in connection with employee activism. Berland was organizing against Google’s decision to work with IRI Consultants, a firm widely known for its anti-union efforts, when he was let go for reviewing other employees’ calendars. Now, the NLRB has found Google’s policy against employees looking at certain coworkers’ calendars is unlawful. “Google’s hiring of IRI is an unambiguous declaration that management will no longer tolerate worker organizing,” Berland said in a statement. “Management and their union busting cronies wanted to send that message, and the NLRB is now sending their own message: worker organizing is protected by law.”

Spiers was fired after she created a pop-up for Google employees visiting the IRI Consultants website. “Googlers have the right to participate in protected concerted activities,” the notification read, according to The Guardian. The company said Spiers had violated security policies, a statement that hurt her reputation in the tech community. Now, the NLRB has found the firing was unlawful. “This week the NLRB issued a complaint on my behalf. They found that I was illegally terminated for trying to help my colleagues,” Spiers said. “Colleagues and strangers believe I abused my role because of lies told by Google management while they were retaliating against me. The NLRB can order Google to reinstate me, but it cannot reverse the harm done to my credibility.”

Microsoft Also Patented Tech to Score Meetings Using Filmed Body Language, Facial Expressions

Newly surfaced Microsoft patent filings describe a system for deriving and predicting “overall quality scores” for meetings using data such as body language, facial expressions, room temperature, time of day, and number of people in the meeting. The system uses cameras, sensors, and software tools to determine, for example, “how much a participant contributes to a meeting vs performing other tasks (e.g., texting, checking email, browsing the Internet).”

The “meeting insight computing system” would then predict the likelihood that a group will hold a high-quality meeting. It would flag potential challenges when an organizer is setting the meeting up, and recommend alternative venues, times, or people to include in the meeting, for example… A patent application made public Nov. 12 notes, “many organizations are plagued by overly long, poorly attended, and recurring meetings that could be modified and/or avoided if more information regarding meeting quality was available.” The approach would apply to in-person and virtual meetings, and hybrids of the two…

The filings do not detail any potential privacy safeguards. A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment on the patent filings in response to GeekWire’s inquiry. To be sure, patents are not products, and there’s no sign yet that Microsoft plans to roll out this hypothetical system. Microsoft has established an internal artificial intelligence ethics office and a companywide committee to ensure that its AI products live by its principles of responsible AI, including transparency and privacy. However, the filings are a window into the ideas floating around inside Microsoft, and they’re consistent with the direction the company is already heading.

Demand For Employee Surveillance Increased As Workers Transitioned To Home Working

A new study shows that the demand for employee surveillance software was up 55% in June 2020 compared to the pre-pandemic average. From webcam access to random screenshot monitoring, these surveillance software products can record almost everything an employee does on their computer. VPN review website Top10VPN used its global monitoring data to analyze over 200 terms related to employee surveillance software. It took into account both generic and brand-specific queries for its study which compared searches during March-May 2020 with internet searches in the preceding year. Global demand for employee monitoring software increased by 108% in April, and 70% in May 2020 compared with searches carried out the preceding year. Queries for “How to monitor employees working from home” increased by 1,705% in April and 652% in May 2020 compared with searches carried out the preceding year.

The surge in popularity of such an open-ended phrase like this reveals how unprepared many companies were for the abrupt shift to mass home-working. The most popular surveillance tools are Time Doctor, Hubstaff, and FlexiSPY. The tools with the biggest increase in demand include Teramind, DeskTime, Kickidler, and Time Doctor, with interest for the latter tripling compared to the pre-pandemic levels. The top three tools account for almost 60% of global demand in surveillance software because of the range of features offered. The radical shift away from office-working has clearly made employers nervous about a reduction in productivity and its potential impact on their business. Greater surveillance, however, may actually reduce long-term productivity. Your boss watching your every move may make you less productive in the long run and could significantly impact your feelings about the company itself.

Amazon Drivers Are Hanging Smartphones in Trees To Get More Work

A strange phenomenon has emerged near Amazon.com delivery stations and Whole Foods stores in the Chicago suburbs: smartphones dangling from trees. Contract delivery drivers are putting them there to get a jump on rivals seeking orders.

Someone places several devices in a tree located close to the station where deliveries originate. Drivers in on the plot then sync their own phones with the ones in the tree and wait nearby for an order pickup. The reason for the odd placement, according to experts and people with direct knowledge of Amazon’s operations, is to take advantage of the handsets’ proximity to the station, combined with software that constantly monitors Amazon’s dispatch network, to get a split-second jump on competing drivers. That drivers resort to such extreme methods is emblematic of the ferocious competition for work in a pandemic-ravaged U.S. economy suffering from double-digit unemployment. Much the way milliseconds can mean millions to hedge funds using robotraders, a smartphone perched in a tree can be the key to getting a $15 delivery route before someone else. Drivers have been posting photos and videos on social-media chat rooms to try to figure out what technology is being used to receive orders faster than those lacking the advantage.

Gig Workers for Target’s Delivery App Hate Their Algorithmically-Determined Pay

In 2017 Target bought a same-day home-delivery company called Shipt for $550 million. Shipt now services half of Target’s stores, reports Motherboard, and employs more than 100,000 gig workers.

Unfortunately, they’re working for a company that “has a track record of censoring and retaliating against workers for asking basic questions about their working conditions or expressing dissent,” reports Motherboard. For example, an hour after tweeting about how there was now much more competition for assignments, one Seattle gig worker found their account suddenly “deactivated” — the equivalent of being fired — and also received an email saying they were no longer “eligible to reapply”.

“They stamp out resistance by flooding the market with new workers…” complained one Shipt worker, “and they’re actively monitoring all the social media groups. ”
On its official national Facebook group, known as the Shipt Shopper Lounge, which has more than 100,000 members, Shipt moderators selected by the company frequently censor and remove posts, turn off comments sections, and ban workers who speak out about their working conditions, according to screenshots, interviews, and other documentation provided to Motherboard. The same is true on local Facebook groups, which Shipt also monitors closely, according to workers. Motherboard spoke to seven current Shipt workers, each of whom described a culture of retaliation, fear, and censorship online…

Because Shipt classifies its workers as contractors, not employees, workers pay for all of their expenses — including gas, wear and tear on their cars, and accidents — out of pocket. They say the tips on large orders from Target, sometimes with hundreds of items, can be meager. Workers say Shipt customers often live in gated and upscale communities and that the app encourages workers to tack on gifts like thank you cards, hot cocoa, flowers, and balloons onto orders (paid for out of their own pocket) and to offer to walk customer’s dogs and take out their trash, as a courtesy. Shipt calls this kind of service “Bringing the Magic,” which can improve workers’ ratings from customers that factor into the algorithm that determines who gets offered the most lucrative orders…

Unfortunately, that new algorithm (which began rolling out last year) is opaque to the workers affected by it — though Gizmodo reported pay appears to be at least 28% lower. And Motherboard heard even higher estimates:
“Our best estimate is that payouts are now 30 percent less, and up to 50 percent on orders,” one Shipt worker in Kalamazoo with two years under her belt, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told Motherboard. “I fluctuate between extreme anger and despair. It’s been three weeks since this has been implemented, and one of my good friends told me that she’s down the equivalent of a car payment.”

Another Shipt worker in Palm Springs, California provided Motherboard with receipts for a 181-item order that included six Snapple cases, five La Croix cases, and 12 packs of soda. They had to wheel three shopping carts out of a Ralph’s grocery store and deliver them — and earned $12.68 for the job. The customer did not tip. (Under the older, more transparent pay model, they would have earned $44.19.) “That’s a real slap in the face,” they told Motherboard.

Smartphones and Fitness Trackers Are Being Used To Gauge Employee Performance

The passive system incorporates an app known as PhoneAgent, which was developed by Prof. Andrew Campbell at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College. Using the smartphone’s own sensors, that app continuously monitors factors such as the worker’s phone usage, physical activity level, geographical location, and the ambient light levels of their environment. PhoneAgent is also Bluetooth-linked to a fitness bracelet worn by the employee, which transmits data including their heart functions, sleep quality, stress levels, and calorie consumption. Additionally, Bluetooth locational beacons in the person’s home and workplace monitor how much time they spend at each place, and how often they leave their workstation.

All of the phone, bracelet and beacon data is transmitted to a cloud-based server, where it’s processed via machine-learning algorithms that were “trained” on the habits of people already known to be high- or low-level performers. When tested on 750 workers across the U.S. over a one-year period, the system was reportedly able to distinguish between individuals’ performance levels (in a variety of industries) with an accuracy of 80 percent. That number should rise as the system is developed further.

Applying For Your Next Job May Be an Automated Nightmare

If you think looking for a job is already daunting, anxiety-riddled, and unpleasant, just wait until the algorithms take over the hiring process. When they do, a newfangled ‘digital recruiter’ like VCV, which just received $1.7 million in early investment, hopes it will look something like this: First, a search bot will be used to scan CVs by the thousands, yours presumably among them. If it’s picked out of the haystack, you will be contacted by a chatbot. Over SMS, the bot will set an appointment for a phone interview, which will be conducted by an automated system enabled by voice recognition AI. Next, the system will ask you, the applicant, to record video responses to a set of predetermined interview questions. Finally, the program can use facial recognition and predictive analytics to complete the screening, algorithmically determining whether the nervousness, mood, and behavior patterns you exhibit make you a fit for the company. If you pass all that, then you will be recommended for an in-person job interview.

[…] VCV, which did not respond to a request for comment, is far from alone here. A growing suite of startups is pitching AI-driven recruitment services, promising to save corporations millions of dollars throughout the hiring process by reducing overhead, to pluck more ideal candidates out of obscurity, and to reduce bias in the hiring process. Most offer little to no evidence of how they actually do so. VCV’s much-larger competitor, HireVue, which has raked in a staggering $93 million in funding and is backed by top-tier Silicon Valley venture capital firms like Sequoia, is hocking many of the same services. It counts 700 companies as its clients, including, it says, Urban Outfitters, Intel, Honeywell, and Unilever. AllyO, which was founded in 2015, and “utilizes deep workflow conversational AI to fully automate end to end recruiting workflow” has $19 million in backing.

Chinese companies using GPS tracking device smartwatches to monitor, alert street cleaners

Street cleaners in parts of China are reportedly being forced to wear GPS-tracking smartwatches so employers can monitor how hard they work, sparking public outrage and concern over increasing mass surveillance across the country.

If the smartwatch detects a worker standing still for over 20 minutes, it sounds an alarm. “Add oil, add oil [work harder, work harder!],” the wristbands’ alarm says, several cleaners from the eastern city of Nanjing told Jiangsu Television earlier this month.

The smartwatch not only tracks the cleaners’ locations but also reports their activity back to the company’s control room, where a big screen displays their locations as a cluster of red dots on a map.

“It knows everything,” an anonymous cleaner told a reporter in the Jiangsu Television report. “Supervisors will come if we don’t move after hearing the alarm.”

Following backlash, the company said it removed the alarm function from the smartwatch, but reports maintain the employees are still being required to wear the device so their location can be tracked.

The Chinese Government is already in the process of building a Social Credit System aimed at monitoring the behaviour of its 1.4 billion citizens with the help an extensive network of CCTV cameras and facial recognition technology.

Senior researcher for Human Rights Watch China Maya Wang said the use of surveillance technology by the Government was sending private companies a message that it was “okay to [monitor] people”.

Americans Are Lining Up To Work For Amazon For $15 an Hour

Analysts had worried Amazon’s wage increase would cut into its profits. So far that doesn’t seem to be the case. Amazon reported $3 billion in profit for the fourth quarter.

Silicon Valley’s dirty secret: Using a shadow workforce of contract employees to drive profits

As the gig economy grows, the ratio of contract workers to regular employees in corporate America is shifting. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber and other Silicon Valley tech titans now employ thousands of contract workers to do a host of functions — anything from sales and writing code to managing teams and testing products. This year at Google, contract workers outnumbered direct employees for the first time in the company’s 20-year history.

It’s not only in Silicon Valley. The trend is on the rise as public companies look for ways to trim HR costs or hire in-demand skills in a tight labor market. The U.S. jobless rate dropped to 3.7 percent in September, the lowest since 1969, down from 3.9 percent in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some 57.3 million Americans, or 36 percent of the workforce, are now freelancing, according to a 2017 report by Upwork. In San Mateo and Santa Clara counties alone, there are an estimated 39,000 workers who are contracted to tech companies, according to one estimate by University of California Santa Cruz researchers.

Spokespersons at Facebook and Alphabet declined to disclose the number of contract workers they employ. A spokesperson at Alphabet cited two main reasons for hiring contract or temporary workers. One reason is when the company doesn’t have or want to build out expertise in a particular area such as doctors, food service, customer support or shuttle bus drivers. Another reason is a need for temporary workers when there is a sudden spike in workload or to cover for an employee who is on leave.

Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics

“This short video reveals the hazards of the electronics industry in China profiling workers poisoned by chemicals and their struggle for compensation.

Thousands of young people in China enter export factories to make the West’s favorite electronic gadgets, only to find they have contracted occupational diseases or worse, leukemia, by the age of 25.”