An expert’s opinion: An interview with Aida Ponce del Castillo on the impacts of remote working on employees

Aida Ponce del Castillo, senior researcher at the Foresight Unit of European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) in Brussels, has been assessing the legal, ethical and regulatory issues of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, focussing on their impact on work and employment. In this interview she voices concerns about the speed of adoption of surveillance technologies to track worker productivity or behaviour.

How had Covid-19 changed our working life?

ESMH expert Aida Ponce del CastilloAida Ponce del Castillo: From a very early stage, within weeks of Belgium and the rest of the EU going into lockdown, I noticed how technology companies were releasing new software and tools so that their clients could continue to do business. Very early on, I received reports of companies adapting existing products, I’m thinking in particular of digital bracelets, to do contact tracing, for example.

Looking closer into who was doing what and for what purposes, I was surprised at the speed of new technology adoption, bypassing risk and safety assessments and other types of discussions that would have happened in other circumstances, when a new technology is tested prior to entering the market.

One of the main changes was the sudden need to move work online, which helped some companies to remain in business and keep production going, but for which the workforce wasn’t really prepared. One obvious issue was workers having to bear the burden of not just adapting their homes to become a work space, but also manage their family and personal lives in a state of emergency.

What effects does remote working have on workers?

Aida Ponce del Castillo: The toll on workers is both physical, as musculoskeletal disorders arise from poor homeworking practices, and mental, as tasks and decision-making processes become less well defined and the lines between work and home life are blurred. On top of that, we have seen an increase in technological surveillance of productivity and behaviour. This is the riskiest aspect of working from home as it can happen without the knowledge of the worker. Once a technology is adopted, even if tacitly adopted, it is difficult to remove.

My research shows that there has been an increase in the number of companies that provide surveillance software since the pandemic started. Most are based in the US and target US companies, offering solutions to monitor workers’ productivity or behaviour. My concern is that this crisis may be used by some as an opportunity to establish invasive surveillance practices. From a power relationship point of view, workers are at a disadvantage and would probably be unable to resist. Even more so when working remotely, in relative isolation.

How do you envision the future of work?

Aida Ponce del Castillo: I really hope these surveillance technologies are not here to stay. They are intrusive physically and mentally, and have an impact beyond our work life. Workers need to take a more critical look at these technologies and develop a better understanding of how they are used by their employer. Without them having to become tech-savvy or cybersecurity experts, workers should be more aware of what is intrusive and what is not.

What policy measures can be taken to protect workers’ rights?

Aida Ponce del Castillo: Covid hit as Europe’s digital revolution was kicking off. When she took office, Ursula von der Leyen stated that one of her top priorities was to ensure the digital transformation of Europe and its ability to be a competitive player in the global big-data market. She announced a complex policy package to create a digital single market, with several major initiatives, including a White Paper on Artificial Intelligence, a European Data Strategy, and the Digital Services Act package.

Many other initiatives are planned and will be the subject of consultation processes. Civil society groups, trade unions and privacy advocacy groups need to take part in the debate, but the direction that negotiations will take is still unclear. Most importantly, I don’t know how far the Commission is willing to go towards protecting workers. The Commission’s European Data Strategy makes only one or two references to worker protection. Workers are mostly referred to in the context of companies enabling digital skills, which is already an obligation for employers, who have to provide staff with the tools and skills they need to do their work. My concern is that such skills are often very company-specific and as such not necessarily useable in another organisation. Workers deserve more than skills; they deserve to know and have a say in how digital and data-driven technologies are being adopted.

What is currently happening on the ground (in companies)?

Aida Ponce del Castillo: As I mentioned earlier the speed of technology adoption is increasing. It is important that risk assessments continue to take place. Across the EU workers’ representatives have the right to be informed, consulted and even negotiate in some cases, when new technology is introduced. Unfortunately, trade unions are not always involved: they are not informed about it or kept in the dark because the technology is classified as confidential business information by the employer. It is essential that trade unions are involved and have the option of calling on external experts, if required, to determine the risks that the technology poses to workers doing their job.

Data is driving our economy, with algorithms embedded in machines increasingly making decisions for a company, for a specific process or outcome. The issue here is the invisibility of those processes and the simple fact that, as workers, we don’t see that particular reality. We do not know how specific algorithms work, or how they evaluate us, for example. I urge workers to become aware and question the technologies they are made to work with. By investigating and understanding how they really work, what data is involved and how it is used, they can be more reactive and re-establish themselves as actors of the technology, rather than blind users of it.

One of the positive things that might emerge from this pandemic is that workers may become more ‘technology and algorithm-aware’, start raising their voice and become part of decision-making processes. The recent protests by students in the UK whose exam marks were predicted by an algorithm and that resulted in a spectacular government U-turn, may be an important first step in that direction. I hope adult workers learn from this example and develop an awareness about technology that helps all of us live a better data-driven life.

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