While you’re here… help us stay here.

Are you enjoying open access to policy and research published by a broad range of organisations? Please donate today so that we can continue to provide this service.


Technology and power: understanding issues of insecure work and technological change in Australian workplaces

Submission to the Inquiry on the impact of technological change on the future of work and workers in New South Wales
Future of work Autonomous technologies Work environment Labour rights Work insecurity Electronic surveillance New South Wales

Mapping existing trends and concerns held by workers across a diverse range of industries, this submission seeks to ground analysis of workplace technologies in the context of different labour processes and employment relationships. Attention is paid to the asymmetries of power that exist between every employer and worker. These trends are considered in the historical context of work, scientific management, and different styles of management tasked with controlling workers and the labour process. Technologies in the broadest sense are investigated—from the humble stopwatch to cutting edge facial recognition technology.

Key points:

  • Workplace technologies confirm to path dependencies; once installed it’s very difficult to wind back their use or have them uninstalled. Particularly in the case of technologies that are designed to be ubiquitous, their use is rapidly normalised. As such, interventions must happen at the outset to protect against issues of function creep.
  • There is a significant gap between the capabilities of new technologies— particularly surveillance—and the legal, industrial and social protections necessary to mitigate the risks of harm to workers. Many technological issues don’t neatly fit into pre-existing dispute resolution processes and legal frameworks are not always specifically applicable to the workplace. Many workers express a lack of understanding of their “technological rights.” This is particularly the case in instances where new technologies are obscuring or even replacing traditional management structures, in effect automating middle management and human resources roles.
  • Workers report the widespread use of invasive surveillance technologies in non-work spaces, such as break rooms, for overtly disciplinary purposes. Many industries are so deeply monitored that workers have come to expect surveillance and have internalised cultures of self surveillance even if no such technology is actually in place. Secretive uses of surveillance mean workers cannot know if they are being watched or not which causes psychological harm.
  • Technological change can be both radically disruptive and also have quiet moments that undermine the social contract gradually over time.
  • Medical surveillance of workers is an issue of increasing concern. This is expected to accelerate amid Covid-19 and as medical and health data grows in strategic importance for firms.
  • Many workers report issues of work intensification and unsafe working speeds and KPIs. Particularly as the cost of job loss rises amid increasing unemployment levels, employers gain further power to erode existing norms, wages and conditions.
  • Technological advancements are disembedded from the labour that produces them and disproportionately benefit owners of capital. This causes anxiety and resentment among some workers rather than optimism for genuine innovation.
  • Workers experiencing mass dislocation by labour-saving technologies in traditional union industries fear that future employment opportunities will be of diminished quality, wages and conditions.
  • There is a strong interrelationship between technology and insecure work. Insecure employment relationships are more amenable to exploitative uses of technology, and in turn, this exploitation creates a downward pressure on the quality and security of other forms of work. In very precarious forms of work, sophisticated technology is not required for effective worker discipline and surveillance.
  • Many of the technological issues reported are not sophisticated in nature, but simply old technologies applied in an increasingly punitive manner. Australia is in fact lagging behind many other OECD countries when it comes to technological investment and innovation. Capital has failed to invest in genuine innovation and growth, instead favouring financialisation and rent-seeking behaviours.


Publication Details
Access Rights Type: