RELEASE: Data and Algorithms at Work: The Case for Worker Technology Rights

November 3, 2021
By: UC Berkeley Labor Center

UC Berkeley report unveils policy framework for worker technology rights

BERKELEY, CALIF. – Today, the UC Berkeley Labor Center released a groundbreaking report that provides a new and comprehensive set of policy principles for worker technology rights in the United States.

Data and Algorithms at Work: The Case for Worker Technology Rights, by Annette BernhardtLisa Kresge, and Reem Suleiman, provides a timely, research-based framework for policymakers, academics, and worker advocates beginning to grapple with the need for technology rights given the growth of data-driven workplaces. This release comes on the heels of recent efforts from the federal government — the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy — to safeguard the public from the potential harms of artificial intelligence.

“In the rapidly evolving debate about the technology rights that consumers and social media users should have, we don’t talk nearly enough about the technology rights that workers need,” said Annette Bernhardt, director of the Technology and Work Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, and co-author of the report.

Employers are increasingly using data-driven technologies — like electronic monitoring to track workers and algorithms to make a wide range of employment decisions — with potentially profound effects on workers’ wages, working conditions, and race and gender equity, the authors find.

“Workers are often left in the dark when it comes to the data being collected on them, when they’re being monitored, and whether algorithms are making hiring, performance evaluation, or other decisions that impact them,” said Bernhardt.

Data and Algorithms at Work suggests that technological harms to workers are not inevitable and calls for a new set of policy principles that can help build a robust regulatory framework. Collectively, worker technology rights based on these policy principles would provide workers access to their data; hold employers responsible for any harms caused by their systems; regulate how employers use algorithms and electronic monitoring; ensure the right to organize around technology; guard against discrimination; and establish a strong enforcement system.

The policy principles in the report are based on an extensive review of the diverse and growing ways that employers are using data collection, electronic monitoring, and algorithmic management in major industries, such as home care, warehousing, retail and grocery, and transportation. Since these industries often pay low wages and depend on the labor of workers of color, women, and immigrants, the effects of data-driven workplaces will be borne disproportionately by these workers.

The report then documents the potential harms of these technologies on workers. For example, productivity algorithms in warehouses can accelerate the pace of work to dangerous levels and cause repetitive stress injuries for workers. Algorithms may cause discrimination by selecting applicants according to discriminatory patterns in the dataset the algorithms were trained on. Employers may also use technology that mines data from workers’ social media accounts to predict whether they might become a whistleblower or try to organize a union.

“Since data-driven workplaces are an emerging trend, we have an opportunity now to shape technology for the collective good and to ensure continued innovation,” said Bernhardt. “With strong worker protections in place, new technology can help build a vibrant economy with living wage jobs, safe workplaces, and race and gender equity.”

Learn more about this report at a public webinar on Thursday, November 4 at 10 am PT. Registration is free and available here.