Retailers including Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Tesco were last week faced with the charge of “dehumanising their workforce”, after research from the GMB union claimed the use of electronic tagging for staff was on the rise.
The report by Michael Blakemore, a professor at Durham University, found that companies – predominately those supplying goods to supermarkets – were increasingly requiring staff to wear devices on their wrists and fingers that tell them which goods to pick in different areas of warehouses.
However, the GMB claims the devices also register how long it takes workers to go from one part of the warehouse to another, what breaks the workers require, and how long they need to go to the toilet. “Any deviation from these times is not tolerated,” it said.
The retailers named in the GMB report as using suppliers that make use of this technology have all vigorously denied the claims that they track employees’ movements.
A spokesman from Asda told Personnel Today that while the company was trialling tracking devices, they did not have any kind of GPS (global positioning system) to actually track staff.
And Tesco said that it had gone to its warehouses the day the report was published to reassure staff that it would not use tracking devices.
But the GMB report did not actually state that the supermarkets tracked their staff, but merely those working on their behalf.
This shows just how vulnerable a company’s hard-won reputation can be to the actions of those employed further down the line.
Alan Wild, managing partner at corporate social responsibility consultancy Aritake-Wild, said the higher the perception of quality a brand held, the greater the public’s expectation would be of responsible practice right through the supply chain.
As customers become evermore concerned about HR issues, Wild said HR would need to look ‘beyond the factory gates’, right down the supply chain, and re-evaluate everyone who the public might term ‘an employee’.
Karen Seward, employment partner at law firm Allen & Overy, said one company contracting another as part of its supply chain could impose certain standards of behaviour on its business partner.
“As long as the service is being performed for the benefit of the company, this can be part of the contract,” she said.
Seward also advised companies considering using the tagging devices to run through a data protection impact assessment to satisfy themselves in terms of Data Protection Act compliance.
“Arguably, tagging also represents a new work method, and it may be advisable for employers to carry out some consultation with the workforce to avoid potential trust and confidence problems or breach of contract,” she said.
How Tesco tries to ensure the highest standards in its vast supply chain:
“Our suppliers are essential to the success of our business, and as a responsible company, we have policies and practices in place to ensure high standards throughout our supply chain,” said a Tesco spokeswoman.
“As a founder member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), we use the base code as our standard. This covers labour standards, health and safety, discrimination and employment rights.
“We risk assess and audit (regularly unannounced) all of our suppliers, and train our buyers and technical managers to understand and respond to the ETI code, and have extended this training to our suppliers.
“We require all suppliers to take responsibility for upholding supply chain standards by applying the ETI base code in their secondary supply chain.
“We believe this ensures a robust approach to upholding standards in our supply chain.”