Grocery Tag Those People Please

Editor’s Short:

One generations educations, the next generations politics. ‘How true this is.’

The scene was one of men and women in their Saville Row suits running to and fro through the City (London’s old Square Mile). Each making sure to grab their Pret a Porter lattes; and with leather folder under arm. The scene was the same on Trafalgar Square. It was the mirrored at Canary Wharf. It was 10-15 years ago, remember, and everyone and their dog was choosing to do an MBA degree. Why not? It was the the fashion; and everyone was scrambling to enroll in one of those programs. It was a participation in the ways of ‘the City’ (the old Square Mile in downtown London, England). Each one confident and convinced of the direction they were proceeding in; unaware though then of a yet partially invisible technocracy becoming very visible they were unwittingly helping to construct by their submission.

For near a generation now we have sent our future managers, CEOs and COOs to take their Master’s in Business Administration. The thinking then had been to replace the earlier theoretical eggheads with new grads more practically trained and efficient. ‘The bottom line is the goal mantra.’ Well these grads have become our corporate heads.  The bottom line is all that counts right? So what is the result of this pursuit of bottom line without morals?

Now the fruit of this MBA generation has appeared  and we have employees being tagged like cows?

What drives this is a golden calf (‘a golden calf is an attempt to acquire salvation through making lots of money’).

This is a form of worship; and it ends up grinding 98% of the population for the temporary gain of a small few.

Story:

Read below what  TESCO is doing to their employees:

The notion that workers can be monitored and ‘kept fresh,’ like bread on a shelf, suggests an overbearing corporate worldview.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
The notion that workers can be monitored and ‘kept fresh,’ like bread on a shelf, suggests an overbearing corporate worldview.

Every British cow is required to wear an ear tag that tracks its movements from birth, through various farms and feedlots, until it ends up on the grocery store shelf. If that meat ends up on the shelves of British grocery giant Tesco, it could be that it was put there by an employee wearing a similar tag.

Earlier this year, reports surfaced that “employees at the company’s Dublin distribution center are forced to wear armbands that measure their productivity so closely that the company even knows when they take a bathroom break.” Yes, Tesco workers must wear a device similar to that worn by “every bovine animal in the United Kingdom and the European Union.”

Well, it’s not quite the same: The employer tracks its cattle, errr, workers, only while they’re at work, not until they’re dead. But it’s creepy nonetheless.

Walter Russell Mead, writing for the American Interest, suggests this is the new normal. He notes: “You may think it sounds vaguely menacing and dehumanizing, but you’re probably going to be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing, especially when it comes to penalizing specific behaviors.”

Well, it doesn’t only sound vaguely menacing or dehumanizing. It is menacing and dehumanizing.

But if we are going to be “seeing a lot more of this type of thing,” we have to ask ourselves: On what principled grounds will we counter such activity? For purposes of making policy, the mere gut sense that something is creepy isn’t enough.

Some may ask: What about individual rights and the right to privacy?

But in fact, workers freely volunteer to exchange their labour at a given place for a wage. Those who work hard deserve to get rewarded. Those who slack off deserve to be penalized. A tagging system helps distinguish one from the other. Why isn’t that fair? Isn’t meritocracy a form of justice?

But the question remains: What happens to a workplace — what happens to a worker — when she is subjected to monitoring by a central mainframe? Will she work harder? Will she work better? Will she be as malleable as head office thinks?

Tesco isn’t just placing a cuff on its workers, it’s imposing a worldview

The answer depends largely on whether workers will respond to the set of incentives and disincentives placed on them by such a program. But to phrase it this way suggests that such programs are neutral techniques, rather than morally laden frameworks. And the notion that workers, like the bread they put on the shelf, can be monitored and “kept fresh” via a device that treats them like any other bar-coded item in the grocery store is just that. Tesco isn’t just placing a cuff on its workers, it’s imposing a worldview.

That worldview looks an awful like the one described by Yale professor James C. Scott in his 1999 book Seeing Like a State . The heart of this utopian vision, a temptation for both governments and corporations, Scott says, is an attempt to make the world universally legible. To do this, companies must “severely bracket all variables except those bearing directly” on its goal. For Tesco, that’s efficient distribution. It’s “a faith that … is uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientific in its optimism about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human … production.”

Firms that focus on employee engagement are 21% more productive, 22% more profitable, and experience dramatically lower rates of absenteeism, safety incidents and other key measures

Approaches such as Tesco’s are “as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification” as those we saw in failed attempts at centrally planned states such as the USSR. “The difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay.”

So, will Tesco’s “banding” of its employees pay off?

Not likely.

A massive study by the polling firm Gallup shows that for companies, a focus on employee engagement with the company’s mission is a more likely driver of success. Firms that focus on employee engagement are 21% more productive, 22% more profitable, and experience dramatically lower rates of absenteeism, safety incidents and other key measures.

Tesco’s myopic focus on the movements of workers at the expense of focusing on the moral worth of their work suggests they are, to paraphrase the Harvard Business Review, “measuring the wrong things.” What is profitable is not bands that measure one variable, but a deeper, more human view of work. It used to be that trade unions brought these matters into the public consciousness. This labour day, we should ask them to take up this old task with renewed vigour.

Why? Because work is about more than the number of crumpets you can place on a shelf, and involves things such as pride, satisfaction, camaraderie, love. Profit comes from people who truly want the company to succeed.

So, Tesco, go ahead and treat your workers like cows. Just don’t expect them to respond as humans.

Credit: Brian Dijkema
National Post

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