Global judgements and ideas.

ILO Violence against women and men in the world of work

I was very privilidged to be invited to the ILO Expert triparte meetings on Violence against women and men in the world of work 3 – 6 October 2016.

My role was as an advisor to the UNI Global Union and in particular for Pav Akhtar, the Director for Professionals and Managers whose specialism is in technology and the workplace.

I was invited on the basis of my research on the ways that technology impacts the world of work and the stress and difficulties that workers face resulting from it. Before going, Pav and I wrote an article that will be published in a special issue of the International Journal of Labour Research issue edited by Anna Biondi and Vera Guseva.

Our article breaks down the types of workplace changes that people experience and sections are labelled: Electronic performance monitoring (EPM) and surveillance at work; The machine question: non-routine work at risk and reputation by algorithm in online platforms; and wearable tracking technologies, the ‘quantified workplace’ and people analytics. The next section then looks at trade unions responses and defense of well-being in the age of digital surveillance. Here is the introduction to our article.

The psycho-social impacts of technological change in contemporary workplaces and trade union responses

Pav Akhtar, UNI Global Union

Phoebe Moore, Middlesex University London

Accepted for publication for International Journal of Labour Research issue edited by Anna Biondi and Vera Guseva (2017).


In the era of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution which is “characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the line between the physical, digital and biological spheres” (Schwab, 2016), we increasingly work with machines in both cognitive and manual workplaces. It is widely understood that work design research and experimentation has undergone numerous stages of evolution since the beginnings of scientific management. With influences from bureaucratic and control methods, to corporatist and participative management, to the current trend for ‘agile’ workplaces, we have moved from the predominance of manufacturing to service and digitalized work and see a significant range of new technologies in workplaces that are changing the way we work in ways hardly seen before.

Technology has always had a double-edged identity in workplaces ever since the well-known industrialists Frederick W. Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth devised schemes to understand workplace productivity as it is linked with human behaviour, and searched for ways to influence change through technologically-informed work design at the beginning of the 1900s. Indeed, the principle, influence and integration of technology in workplaces can be traced back to the industrial age where efficiency and productivity gains were prioritized with a parallel desire to maintaining well-being and health of workers (akin to the Gilbreths’ interest in fatigue and rest). What is new is the availability and inclusion of a range of unprecedented technologies that can be used to measure, track, analyze and perform work in ways hardly imagined during Taylor’s and the Gilbreths’ lifetimes. New tracking and monitoring technologies allow management to control work at ever-more intensified levels. Some applications of workplace technology remove management accountability and in some cases, traditional ‘management’ altogether. This article looks at what this means for workers.

Traditionally non-routine professional work is increasingly delineated into discrete piecework that can now be done by machines and artificial intelligence (Ford, 2015; Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2011), building on Braverman’s observations in factories (1974/1998). More recent researchers note that “computers, which are meant to help [workers to] do the work more efficiently are also extremely merciless monitoring tools” leading to conditions where “work rates are close to the maximum that workers can manage” (Peaucelle, 2000, p. 461) leading to high turnover rates, worker tensions and psycho-social violence. New technologies and digitalized work do not only put pressure on workers in the Western world, they have allowed for a global division of labour, allowing for outsourcing of routine work and increasing pressures on factory and manufacturing work where practices are regulated nationally. Workplace technologies of surveillance and control are also occurring in both the global north and global south (Moore and Robinson, 2015).

In this article, we outline some of the most relevant developments in the uses, and possible misuses, of technology in workplaces today, in the context of a globalized world of work where workers at all levels of income levels, job security and locations of work increasingly face new pressures. A range of new possibilities also emerge for structural violence at the level of the psycho-social which are made possible through the newest technologies in, and of, work design. Galtung notes that violence is present when “human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations” (1969, p. 168). This well-known Norwegian scholar extended the definition of violence, musing that a narrow understanding where it is seen as a simple opposite to peace, or only a “somatic incapacitation, or deprivation of health, alone (with killing as the extreme form), at the hands of an actor who intends this to be the consequence [italics in original]” (168) does not take into account the variety of types of violence that exist nor allow for concrete action. Galtung differentiates between physical and other types of psychological violence, the latter of which work “on the soul” and “serve to decrease mental potentialities” (169), seen here as psycho-social violence. There is not always a specific agent in conditions where such violence is present and in the cases we present here, technology and its usage have agency in ways that are not always observable.

Structural violence (Galtung, 1969) refers to situations where features of a social institution, such as the technological aspects of work design within the institution, permit the possibility to hurt people by blocking access to basic needs. This type of violence is “built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances” (171). Galtung is known in peace research circles and feminist researchers have built on this work by reminding us that power relations are gendered and that feminism will

…enrich Galtung’s theory by seriously tackling issues of power and gender, which are essential to an understanding of violence as a process through which (violent) social relations are built, legitimized, reproduced, and naturalized. (Confortini, 2006)

While Galtung notes that the term structural violence is interchangeable with ‘social injustice’ he did not look explicitly at gendered power relations. Here, the integration of technologies into workplaces has a range of affects and, in principle, violence and injustice can be avoided by care and recognition to the potential as well as existing problems we point out below and how they impact vulnerable groups, significantly women and men in technology-intensive professional and non-professional roles.

Mainstream thought dictates that technology does not necessarily, nor always, improve the experience of work. ILO research already demonstrates that overwork has an effect on productivity (Golden, 2011) and there is now evidence that, unchecked, new technologies in workplaces can lead to further overwork causing psycho-social problems that can prevent basic levels of comfort and well-being at work. This includes, notably, stress and ill health, by virtue of the fact that technology reduces autonomy and privacy, leads to intensified surveillance and monitoring of work, enables a fast working pace, leads to work-life integration to the point that there is no room for life or family or sociability which impacts women, care workers and technology-intensive professional roles the most, and provides few natural breaks; can lead to increased monotony; individualizes accountability; results in less opportunities for involvement in decision-making and leads to intensified workloads (Ball, 2010; Ball and Margulis, 2011; Taylor et al, 2002; Rafnsdottir and Gudmundsdottir, 2011; Rosenblat et al, 2014). Additional risks range from the low-level concern that workers feel a degree of stress as new technologies become increasingly central, to the more intensive impact of practices like anticipatory surveillance, or a ‘new penology’ involving techniques that are usually utilized in policing contexts, where people are categorized based on levels of perceived dangerousness, which could lead to disastrous employee responses and lead to severe psycho-social and mental ill health problems. Some extreme consequences of these practices have involved workers’ suicides as happened to Foxconn workers in China (Chan and Pun, 2010).

This article highlights endemic precarity and inequality in technology-affected workplaces and the effect on groups of disproportionately-vulnerable workers whose livelihoods are at risk. These include women and girls who are badly impacted within the global digital divide (United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, 2005). Indeed, information and communication technologies may ‘exacerbate existing inequalities between men and women and create new forms of inequality’ (ibid, p. 3). The report ‘Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls 2010 – Digital and Urban Frontiers’ shows that women are worst impacted by cyberbullying and human trafficking online. Domestic workers are increasingly tracked and monitored which leads to stress and unpaid work (Moore, 2015). On-going responsibilities and expectations of reproductive labour in effect doubles the workload of telemarketers in Brazil (Nogueira, 2009). Elsewhere, Huws (2014, p. 55) shows that in the eEconomy in China, and in the growth of value-added work like data entry in lower cost countries such as Sri Lanka, Madagascar and the Dominican Republic, women tend to languish in the lower skilled positions while men occupy higher skilled roles of systems design. A recent report by The Candidate (2016) observes that, in a study of 150 digital businesses in the United Kingdom, twice as many men are employed than women. At the philosophical level, Colman (2014, p. 6) has reminded us that technologies inevitably transform working bodies and the processes of change are both gendered and structurally violent. It can be concluded that technology neutralizes and de-genders psycho-social violence in a range of ways that leads to work intensification and opens up a range of distinct areas of discrimination that governments, employers and unions are slow to capture.

There are a number of studies by international organizations and academic researchers that look at access to digital participation as linked to education and development in the global south; inequality of work in the ICT sector; research on the effect of digital monitoring on domestic work and philosophical writings on the human experience with technology. However, data on the impact of heightened performance monitoring and other forms of quantified and digitalized labour on women specifically, and recommendations for improvement in the area of work and employment for women’s empowerment, are worryingly limited. As indicated, lower paid and casualised levels of work in the technology sector are over-populated by women and other vulnerable groups. Their life experiences are intensified by new monitoring technologies which perpetuate psycho-social violence through exclusion and discrimination and we address these issues below.

With this in mind, the authors detail some of the specific structural violence resulting from the applications of new technologies in workplaces. Firstly, the article looks at psycho-social conditions that are made possible on working life through specific technologies and practices, looking at practices of management, distribution and work design efforts since digitalization and mechanization explicitly affect aspects of work and production. Secondly, it outlines some of the activities that unions have carried out, and can do more to carry out, to mitigate these issues. (email pvm at if you are interested in reading more)


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This entry was posted on January 13, 2017 by .
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