Commentary: Monitoring system for Tampines estate manages cleaners robotically

Commentary: Monitoring system for Tampines estate manages cleaners robotically

Unequal power relations between such low-wage workers and their employers mean that workers are likely to be constrained in expressing their views about work processes, says Natalie Chia.

Rasel sweeps the void deck
File photo of a cleaner at an HDB estate. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: Last Sunday (2 Dec), Tampines Town Council launched a new monitoring system to track work carried out by estate cleaners.

In response to complaints from residents about estate cleanliness, a mobile app will now gather insights on cleaners’ routes, area coverage and other analytics.

Cleaners are to log into the app upon beginning their duties. Besides giving close-to-real-time updates on cleaners’ locations, the app also generates a report of their progress for supervisors.

CONCERNS ARISE

The data would help estate offices “better plan (their) resources and schedule,” said Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui in a Facebook post, to ultimately improve the cleanliness of the estate over time.

Seeking cleaners views on the matter, local media reported one individual feeling his employers wanted to “control” him while netizens expressed concerns about breaches of privacy.

Absent from the discussion as of yet is an understanding of the wider implications of new digital infrastructure. Public digital initiatives like Tampines’ cleaners monitoring system must be scrutinised for their impact on worker-employer ties and whether they directly address the core concerns of residents.

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CLEANERS AS LEVERS RATHER THAN PEOPLE

Debates on the consequences of automation in the economy typically focus on the phasing out of job functions or entire occupations. An equally important trend is the automation of supervisory functions to optimise the actions of human workers.

Automation of supervisory or monitoring functions per se is not new – courier and postage services have longed track the movement of objects or vehicles, like your foodpanda deliveries and your Alibaba package.

A postman using the SmartPost app to track delivery
A postman using the SmartPost app to track delivery. (Photo: Michelle Teo)

Digital monitoring of cleaning services, however, specifically tracks the movement of human beings, not just in optimising the supply chain to ensure the most efficient delivery mode, minimise number of warehouses parcels go through or reduce the time taken for a truck to arrive at a processing centre.

Instead, physical human actions or movements involved in cleaning tasks are converted into tightly controlled variables. In other words, rather than improving the tools of work, systems optimising human action effectively make man the very tool of work.

When managers use these tools, they engage with their staff less as people and more as data points and levers that are controllable, replaceable and even robotic.

The risk here is that remotely-collected data on job performance becomes a substitute for workers’ agency. The system launched in Tampines certainly bears some similarities with taxi booking and food delivery apps which remotely collect data on and optimise rider routes.

But unlike Grab drivers or Deliveroo riders who are self-employed and can choose when, where and how much they would like to work, cleaners have lower levels of autonomy in shaping their conditions of work to begin with.

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TECHNOLOGY AND A GROWING INEQUALITY

Unequal power relations between such low-wage workers and their employers mean that workers are more likely to be constrained in expressing their views about work processes, even as these newfangled technology give companies more flexibility in deploying cleaning staff.

Advancements in technology and workplace automation have but one goal – the chase after efficiency, productivity and lower costs, and it is easy to forget how work should involve dealing with human beings with dignity when digital initiatives reduce them to digits on a screen.

Yet technology too has also afforded greater flexibility and independence for those in higher-paying and mostly white collared jobs who enjoy the support of their progressive employers.

Elderly man using mobile phone
An elderly worker using a mobile phone. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

In this context, given this large and likely growing potential disparity, we must preserve whatever voice low-wage cleaners still have over what they do.

DOES IT REALLY IMPROVE ESTATE CLEANLINESS?

It may seem that substituting worker voices for information on how they perform their duties can provide town councils with data points to address residents’ feedback on lapses in cleanliness.

While optimisation certainly increases the scale of operations and efficiency of resource deployment, can we be sure that it improves quality of service delivery?

Many underlying causes for estate uncleanliness cannot be addressed simply by re-arranging duty schedules or ensuring workers complete assigned routes. Factors such as employee motivation, benefits schemes and workplace culture are not captured or resolved by a position tracking system.

In identifying locations that may require more manpower or redistributing cleaners efficiently, could the use of technology lead supervisors to abdicate their responsibility of people management and shun consulting employees?

If a cleaning company makes the trade-off in favour of increased scale or efficiency at the expense of employees, there must be a clearer articulation of the benefits for cleaners. 

For instance, cleaners could be given more opportunities to take charge of their work of overseeing the cleanliness of estates and provide input on how best to carry out their duties.

For rideshare and food delivery services, their platforms allow drivers to amass a greater number of job requests per day and increase their income, and work as much or as little as they would like. Would estate cleaning companies be open to giving cleaners time off once they have completed their duties, or will they strive to get more out of them?  

The cleaners tracking system reinforces a hierarchy of who is deserving of privacy and autonomy, which disadvantages workers at the end of the supply chain.

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INCREASED SURVEILLANCE

In the Tampines estate cleaners’ case, anecdotally, many are male foreign workers from Bangladesh who already experience extensive surveillance in their private and public lives.

CCTVs, enhanced security systems, guard patrols and other measures are used to regulate foreign workers living in dormitories. Local NGOs like Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) have also described the intensified policing of public spaces frequented by migrant workers such as Little India or Geylang.

File photo cleaner hdb
File photo of a cleaner at an HDB estate.

Netizens are right to question the new system and whether it impinges upon workers’ privacy amid this backdrop of strong measures that impact migrant workers’ everyday lives. By collecting real-time data on cleaners’ footfall and even time taken to complete tasks, the actions of migrant workers are further scrutinised and analysed.

BEWARE NOT TO EXACERBATE INEQUALITIES

The estate cleaning monitoring app and system is still undergoing testing but Ms Cheng says a few town councils have expressed interest in it.

I would caution these town councils and companies instead to be attentive to the inequalities in our society and be careful not to exacerbate them.

Understanding the deleterious effects of digital initiatives on workers is perhaps a first step towards identifying and mitigating unintended outcomes of otherwise helpful digital infrastructure. In this case, an app that on the surface seems to address residents’ complaints about cleanliness can have a far more detrimental impact on labour relations.

As architect and urbanist Keller Easterling describes in her book Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, there is a distinction between what infrastructure “is doing, rather than what it is saying.”

Digital initiatives like the Tampines Town Council’s cleaner monitoring system certainly contribute to the desired construction of Singapore as a Smart Nation.

They must however, be examined carefully for whether they genuinely fulfil their purported outcomes and their potentially dehumanising effects on social ties and inequalities in our community.

Natalie Chia is a researcher studying urban displacement and digital governance at the Oxford University’s Department of International Development.

Source: CNA/nr

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