“Technology has made this job impossible to do. It causes more work than is possible in a 40-hour week. It is never complete no matter how hard one works at it…one feels they never do a good job and that one is constantly under the magnifying glass. On days off one just keeps thinking of work and all the unfinished tasks.”
That’s how one Ontario municipal welfare worker described the impact of technological change on workload. Clearly, technology is evolving rapidly in our workplaces. Such changes can make our lives easier. But they can also dramatically increase our workload.
Technological innovations touted as time-savers and productivity enhancers often have the opposite effect and are often implemented at the expense of workers. Privatization only compounds this problem as quality of service takes a back seat to profit.
Does technological change affect some workers differently?
“Affirmative action policies must explicitly include measures to ensure the redress of historic imbalances of access to and usage of new technologies which are based on race, gender, disability or class,” stresses the South African Congress of Trade Unions.
On the one hand, designers of new technologies are primarily privileged white men with the goal of making it easier for management to be in control. Access to training, implementation and control of technology in the workplace reflects the inequities of society as a whole.
Systemic barriers must always be taken into account when attempting to redress the problems of technological change.
For example, the vast majority of clerical workers, a field that has been dramatically affected by technological change, are women. And the majority of single-parent families are also headed by women. Here’s how a welfare worker and single mom described her situation:
“In January 2000 when a new program was introduced we had to manually enter all files. No additional support was offered and a deadline was introduced. Some staff came in on weekends (unpaid). Since I have three young children I was unable to do that.”
Care for elderly relatives also tends to fall on women’s shoulders, leaving them less flexibility when it comes to making time for training.
The problems caused by new technologies are magnified for workers with literacy challenges or for workers whose first language is not English or French as is the case with many new Canadians.
How do we see it in our workplaces?
Technological change is about more than tools or equipment. It is also about the transformation of our work environments and working conditions. Here are some examples of how.
De-skilling and up-skilling
Skilled work has become a matter of repeatedly flicking a switch or pressing a button. Workers are expected to take on new functions without adequate training.
For example, New Brunswick school secretaries (CUPE 2745) have had to take on accounting responsibilities. At the same time, they are concerned that parents calling the school are now answered by a voice-mail system. They are unable to address parent concerns or provide detailed information.
Library workers in Newfoundland (CUPE 2339) report that increasing reliance on the Internet has led to a reduction in collections. There have also been hacking problems with online systems.
The library workers also report that the majority of desk time is now spent booking computer time. Many have experienced harassment or intimidation when enforcing computer or Internet time limits.
Speeding up, intensifying work and losing control over the work environment
Automation often means that workers no longer have control over the pace of work. Clerical workers have reduced access to schedules and information as more managers do their own voice-mail and e-mail.
Computer software sets the pace and measures performance at the computer workstation and on the assembly line.
For example, the provincial government will determine service levels for the new welfare call centres in Ontario. Eighty per cent of calls are to be answered within 60 seconds. Workers will be allotted 20 minutes to complete each application and three minutes to answer general inquiries. Computer software will be used to monitor time spent on calls, time between calls and the time it takes for each call to be answered.
Call centre software can also be used to determine staffing levels. Forecasting modules predict how many workers are needed per shift (based on the call times outlined above) and even assign workers’ coffee breaks. The advertising brochure for a popular call centre software package is titled “Total Control Made Easy.”
Monitoring workers can extend beyond assessing performance to surveillance of workers during shifts and on breaks.
Workers feel more detached from the product of their work. Automation can also make previously interesting tasks repetitive and boring.
Interaction with computers and machinery can minimize or even eliminate contact with co-workers.
Centralization of services at the expense of workers and communities
New technologies often lead to centralized services. For example, the neighbourhood hospital is disappearing as emphasis is put on new high tech centres that offer specialized services.
The feeling of being part of a neighbourhood is being eliminated. And many workers are now faced with long commutes to new workplaces. This places an extra burden on those workers with physical disabilities and those, usually women, who care for young children and elderly family members.
Valuing technology vs. maintaining adequate staffing levels
A school board in Prince George, BC, laid off teaching and special needs assistants while preparing to spend $10 million over five years on new computer equipment.
“Will the computers and technology the board’s saving up for provide children with the warmth and human interaction they need?” asked Marilyn Hannah, president of CUPE 3742. Furthermore, without staff support, who will assist students, especially those with special needs, to use this new equipment?
Refusals to update or maintain equipment or to provide adequate facilities for new equipment
Workers at the Toronto Catholic Children’s Aid Society, CUPE 2190, went on strike in the summer of 2000, citing dangerous workload levels as a cause. They pointed to outdated technology and increasing paperwork as major contributing factors. Provincial systems were demanding a greater reliance on technology without making allowances for heavy caseloads and incompatible computer systems.
Other workplaces share such equipment problems, as noted by Pat Armstrong in Assessing the Impact of Restructuring and Work Reorganization in Long Term Care, a study of health care workers in Ontario and British Columbia to be released in 2001.
“Providers said they are so rushed they often do not have time to use the lifts,” she writes. “Moreover, there are not enough lifts to fill the growing need and those that are available often cannot handle the load or are in disrepair.”
Health and safety concerns
Hearing loss, headaches and vision damage, repetitive stress injuries and stress-related illnesses all tend to rise sharply with the introduction of new technologies.
Workers at a Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia call centre were asked by their union to complete a survey assessing the effect of workload and stress on their work environment.
Of the 36 who responded, 33 reported that their workload was either “too heavy” or “excessively heavy”. Inadequate staffing levels (31), inadequate training (30) and inadequate technology (30) were all cited as major factors. An alarming 27 respondents had been treated for stomach ulcers during the past year.
The following issues were also identified as significant sources of workplace stress: management practices and attitudes (27), workload (34), lack of training (29), time pressures/deadlines (28) and staff shortages (29).
Ottawa waste management workers at CUPE 1338 are expected to pick up 13-16 tonnes of garbage each day. This has become an even greater challenge since the introduction of sideloaders in which one worker drives on the left side and gets in and out to load the truck on his own.
Lifting bags as heavy as 50 pounds takes a tremendous toll on the body. With sideloaders, workers are not only expected to do work once done by three people, but they must lift the bags much higher than with the old rearloaders. Injury rates are skyrocketing.
Sideloaders were introduced about seven years ago and have become increasingly common with the privatization of waste management services.
Is there contract language that will help?
Most collective agreement language deals with notice and re-training as well as income protection. But as technology increases workloads, language must be developed that addresses broader concerns such as stress.
Clauses must deal with many possibilities in the unpredictable and rapidly changing world of new technologies. Here are a few examples.
- Definition of tech change
“Technological change includes the introduction by the Employer of a change in her/his work, undertaking or business or a change in his/her equipment or material previously used by the Employer, or a change in how the Employer carries on her/his work, undertaking or business related to the introduction of such equipment or material.” (CUPE 1505 and the City of Fort McMurray).
“The Employer and the Union shall establish a Joint Committee on Training and Skill Upgrading for the following purposes:
- for planning training programs for those Employees affected by technological change;
- for planning training programs to enable Employees to qualify for new positions being planned for future expansion or renovation;
- for planning training programs for those Employees affected by new methods of operation;
- for planning training programs in the area of general skill upgrading. Whenever necessary, this Committee shall seek the assistance of external training resources such as the federal or provincial governments, or other recognized training institutions.” (CUPE and the Hospital Labour Relations Association of BC).
“The Employer shall notify the Union (6) months before the introduction of any technological change that adversely affects the rights of Employees or their wages and working conditions.” (CUPE 1505 and the City of Fort McMurray).
- Training and paid educational leave
“Any Employee either voluntarily or compulsorily reassigned or reclassified as a result of the these changes shall be provided with whatever amount of retraining he/she requires during her/his hours of work with full pay from the Corporation and at no additional cost to the Employee. Any Employee unable to follow a retraining course shall maintain his/her classification, or its equivalent, in the bargaining unit.” (CUPE 932 and the Hamilton Public Library).
- Job and income protection
“No Employee shall be dismissed, or have her/his normal earnings reduced as a result of technological change.” (CUPE 1505 and the City of Fort McMurray).
- Surveillance and privacy (monitoring)
Ideally, such clauses would limit the use of call monitoring, ensuring that it is never used for disciplinary purposes. The following is from a draft Memorandum of Agreement affecting Ontario Municipal Welfare Workers assigned to the new Intake Screening Units (call centres):
“It is understood that the information gathered through the call monitoring process is to be used for coaching and training.
“In order to ensure that the call monitoring process addresses the concerns of all parties, it is agreed that the Region will develop a call monitoring policy. The policy will include, for example, a statement about the purpose of call monitoring, why call monitoring is done, what the information is used for, and the coaching and training process. As part of the process of developing a policy, the Region will consult with supervisory staff, the intake screeners and the Union.”
- Changes outside the employer’s control
“When a third party introduces a technological change which has a direct effect on the employment and working conditions of Employees, the Employer agrees to eliminate all injustices and adverse effects on Employees and any denial of their contractual and or legal rights which might result from such changes.” (Canadian Labour Congress).
What can we do about it?
University of Massachusetts professor Charlie Richardson couldn’t have been more right when he told a Ontario Federation of Labour conference: “We [unions] do not mean to stand in the way of progress but we mean to be at the table when progress is defined.”
Here are some ways to do it.
Joint union-management committees.
Union participation is critical to the planning and implementation of technological change. And that participation should preferably take place through the creation of a joint union-management committee.
The terms of reference, authority and mandate of the joint committee must be spelled out in the collective agreement so that the union is able to take legal action if the committee is ineffective in dealing with members’ concerns about technology.
In Pat Amstrong’s study of Ontario and BC long-term care workers, she notes that:
“Groups in both provinces offered examples of consultations that had no impact on decisions. For instance, they’re often asked for an opinion even though ‘they’ve already purchased a piece of equipment and it’s too late to send it back.’ The frustration of fake consultation may be greater than a clear recognition of no control.
“As one resident attendant explained: that is a greater insult to me than not asking in the first place. Even if they didn’t ask and they said they went ahead. Well, okay. They did. But they went ahead anyway and they gave you this little bit of satisfaction thinking that you had some input. That’s a bigger slap in the face than if they didn’t ask you in the first place.”
Get it in writing
The collective agreement should stipulate that the introduction of new technology cannot be used to increase work speed, control or supervision or isolate workers from each other.
Collective agreements must protect workers’ jobs, wages and working conditions when new technology is introduced. We need explicit protection against overwork and work speed-up.
Plan ahead, before changes happen. Negotiate six months advance notice of new technology.
Training that truly meets workers needs should be provided. The key issues for workers, particularly those from equity-seeking groups, are mobility, affordability, relevance and flexibility.
Training must also be accessible (on all levels) and anticipate ongoing workplace changes. Time off for training should be provided during work hours. And the employer should pay for all courses up front.
The Armstrong study of long-term care workers made the point. “Asked about training for colostomies, the response was ‘the only training we get is from another health care aide.’ And RPNs [registered practical nurses] who once had training for such work find their skills are rusty from lack of practice and outdated by new technologies.
“Several maintained that, in earlier periods, employers “would pay for the course,” but those days are gone now. Without training, the providers may be risking their own health and that of their residents, many of whom now require quite complicated care.”
Training must be available for workers with literacy challenges and those whose first language is different from the one they use at work. This may mean more or different training (adapted to the needs of individual learners).
Equally important is that training programs see the “big picture” and not just the individual skills workers need. This will combat feelings of isolation and alienation. It will also enhance overall quality, as workers tend to function as a team and appreciate the impact of their work on others and on the end product.
Workers should have training for current jobs as well as for new classifications or job upgrading.
Unions can ensure that management and workers are aware that technology is an equity issue. Not all members are affected by technological change in the same way or at the same time. It is in the best interest of all workers to address the inequities inherent in the system.
For example, how older workers or those with lower literacy levels are affected by the introduction of new technologies without the proper support or training. Or how some groups, such as women or workers of colour, tend to work in areas predominantly affected by technological change.
It is important that we recognize people’s skills, including the skills of immigrant workers who often have skills and education levels which are not recognized in the Canadian context.
We can make use of the tools of technology to communicate and organize.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions’ Call Centre Unions Group has prepared a “Minimum Standards Code for Call Centres” and uses their web site (www.callcentral.com.au) to reach out to call centre workers.
Their demands: adequate training, full participation of employees in the setting of achievable targets, performance evaluation based on more than consistency or efficiency, no recording without agreement of the worker and their union, flexibility, noise volume reduction, stress relief measures, appropriate call volume targets and breaks.
In the case of breaks, the ACTU says, “the intensification of work in call centres requires that regular rest breaks away from the telephone are essential to protect the health of employees and to sustain high productivity.”
Some workers may more easily adapt to technological change, due to youth, experience or previous exposure. Unions need to reach out to these workers. While initially they may be better able to deal with such changes, all workers benefit by negotiating for training and retention of control over work environments.
For example, CUPE 1338, the waste management workers in Ottawa, has worked at educating younger workers who use side-loading trucks. The local has explained that while they may be physically better able to work at the faster pace demanded by sideloaders, the long-term effects on their bodies of this kind of stress could be devastating and possibly permanent.
We need to negotiate a cap on overtime and a guaranteed minimum number of hours. This means negotiating reduced work hours with no loss of pay. Also, overtime should be voluntary and should be duly compensated.
Hours spent in training to use new technologies should be treated as hours worked. CUPE opposes any legislation which would extend the work week beyond 40 hours or which takes away the right of workers to refuse to work overtime.
Push for “human-centred” technologies where workers’ knowledge and skills are still valued. Technology should be used to make work easier and enhance creativity, not to control workers and isolate them from the products of their labour.
What success have we had?
Waste management workers and clerical staff have achieved some success in addressing technological change as it has affected their workload.
CUPE 416 in North York has won the right to have two workers on all sideloaders.
After several grievances and work refusals, Local 1338 saw the Ontario Ministry of Labour order changes to sideloaders to ensure a clear view while driving and to protect workers from machinery. The local is also participating in a joint committee with industry and equipment manufacturers to draft guidelines for garbage trucks.
Faced with a sharp increase in workers’ compensation claims, Canadian Waste Management conducted a cost effectiveness study. Their conclusion? All factors considered it would be cheaper to use rearloaders. The company has begun this switch in parts of Eastern Ontario.
The Winnipeg water waste and power users program trains clerical workers to assist other employees in the use of charts, graphs and software applications.
Winnipeg water and waste call centre staff go on recycling and garbage routes, to water main breaks and to forums on the new water treatment plant as part of their training. They are routinely included in discussions of departmental issues, since they are acknowledged to be in the best place to know what consumers’ needs are.
All CUPE members are affected by technological change and the restructuring that often takes place to facilitate these changes. Too frequently these changes increase demands on workers and increase their workload levels.
The successes and the actions taken at the bargaining table by CUPE locals show that we can address the workload problems caused by technological change.