04/03/2020 7:38 AM IST | Updated 05/03/2020 12:41 PM IST

What Constant, Arbitrary Surveillance Is Doing To Sanitation Workers’ Health

Several workers said they were too scared to sit and catch their breath as they feared their wrist trackers would alert their supervisors snooping on them from the comfort of their climate-controlled offices.

CHANDIGARH — An intrusive GPS-based surveillance system that continuously monitors sanitation workers, and penalises them if they stray from their computer-assigned “geo-fences”, is profoundly affecting their health and wellbeing like coronavirus, workers say.

Last month, HuffPost India reported on how municipal corporations across the country are forcing their employees to wear smartwatch-sized GPS trackers on their wrists as part of a controversial snooping system called the “Human Efficiency Tracking System”.

The system ensures workers — many of whom are Dalit — are continuously in motion, and sends alerts to their supervisors if they pause for too long or stray from rigidly defined geographic boundaries. Workers are forced to charge the devices at home each night — raising the prospect that their supervisors could use the microphones and cameras embedded in these devices to spy on workers in the privacy of their homes.

Rachna Khaira/HuffPost India
The sanitation workers of the Municipal Corporation of Chandigarh have been protesting against the implementation of the Human Efficiency Tracking System (HETS) for the last one month.

At a gathering in Chandigarh this week, workers complained of nausea, headaches, swelling in their hands,  heightened blood pressure and sugar levels, and rashes since they began wearing the devices. They claimed that the live surveillance has caused more devastating effects on their health than it would have been caused by coronavirus. 

The causal relationship between these illnesses and the use of the tracking devices is unclear, but it is possible that the stress of relentless surveillance is prompting these symptoms. For instance, there is a wealth of evidence on how smartphone usage affects health, sleep patterns, and creativity of users.

What is clear is that municipal corporations around the country are implementing a demeaning form of social control without consulting their workers, or even considering the effects of such surveillance. Worse, the corporations have given workers little indication of what will constitute a violation under this new surveillance driven regime. In Chandigarh, the corporation is yet to set up the monitoring centre but is already forcing workers to wear these devices. 

Workers have responded to this information void by proactively policing themselves with devastating results.

Several workers, many of whom are putting in punishing work-shifts well into their late forties and early fifties, said they were too scared to sit and catch their breath as they feared their wrist trackers would alert their supervisors snooping on them from the comfort of their climate-controlled offices. 

Others have stopped going to the bathroom, drinking water or taking breaks for tea as they aren’t sure where their GPS-defined geo-fence ends.

“If I cross a road to use a toilet falling into the work fence of someone else, will it be called an offence?” asked Bimlesh, who has worked for the Chandigarh municipal corporation for the past 15 years as a contract worker on a meagre salary of Rs 13,000 per month. 

Bimlesh said she has repeatedly asked her supervisors this question in the past two months but is yet to get a clear answer.

Forty-six-year-old Surinder Kumar said he hadn’t taken a tea break ever since he was forced to wear this surveillance device. Kumar, who has worked as a sanitation worker for 20 years, said his shift begins at 6:30 AM, so he normally breaks at 9:00 AM for a quick cup of tea.  

“Earlier, I use to go across the road to drink water and have tea but now it is not possible. If I cross the road, the surveillance device will show my location in sector 7 while I am assigned to work in sector 5,” Kumar said. “How can you expect us to do manual labour without taking a tea or water break throughout the day?”

Jangi Ram, another ageing worker, said the device had triggered a panic attack. 

“I wore the device for four days and started feeling tired,” Jangi Ram said. “I went to a nearby government dispensary for check up and found my sugar level had shot to 600.”

Dev Anand, another worker, claimed that his heartbeat increases as soon as he wears a watch. Roshan Lal, another worker, said he lost consciousness after wearing the surveillance gadget and was taken to hospital. 

The experiences of the sanitation workers are not uncommon. In the 20th century, anthropologists and ethnographers documented the surreal effects of intensive industrial capitalism on workers from societies unused to such exploitation. 

The sanitation workers in Punjab and Haryana seem to be experiencing similar effects from a sudden exposure to what Harvard economist Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”.

Rachna Khaira/HuffPost India
Bhanmati, a 56-year-old sanitation worker of the Municipal Corporation of Panchkula (Haryana), seen with her team wearing the surveillance watch in her wrist.

Unfortunately, the traditional trade union — which was supposed to protect workers from exploitation — seems to have little understanding of what they are up against.

Jagdish Hiremani, of the National Commission For Safai Karamcharis, who met with the workers in Chandigarh, told HuffPost India that the health issues raised by the sanitation workers will be addressed soon but they should wear the surveillance devices. 

“I wore the device for four days and started feeling tired. I went to a nearby government dispensary for check up and found my sugar level had shot to 600.”Jangi Ram, a sanitation worker, Municipal Corporation of Chandigarh

“MC authorities should ensure basic amenities to its sanitation workers and then should ask us to wear the surveillance devices,” Hiremani said, seemingly oblivious of whose side he was supposed to be on. “The devices will increase workers’ productivity, reduce management costs and allow total monitoring of its sanitation workers.”

The workers themselves appeared less than impressed by Hiremani.