Workers in warehouses across Britain are being "electronically tagged" by being asked to wear small computers to cut costs and increase the efficient delivery of goods and food to supermarkets, a report revealed yesterday.
New US satellite- and radio-based computer technology is turning some workplaces into "battery farms" and creating conditions similar to "prison surveillance", according to a report from Michael Blakemore, professor of geography at Durham University.
The technology, introduced six months ago, is spreading rapidly, with up to 10,000 employees using it to supply household names such as Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Boots and Marks & Spencer.
Now trade unionists want safeguards to be introduced to protect worker privacy.
Under the system workers are asked to wear computers on their wrists, arms and fingers, and in some cases to put on a vest containing a computer which instructs them where to go to collect goods from warehouse shelves.
The system also allows su permarkets direct access to the individual's computer so orders can be beamed from the store. The computer can also check on whether workers are taking unauthorised breaks and work out the shortest time a worker needs to complete a job.
Academics are worried that the system could make Britain the most surveyed society in the world. The country already has the largest number of street security cameras.
Martin Dodge, a researcher at the centre for advanced spatial analysis at University College London, said: "These de vices mark the total 'disappearance of disappearance' where the employee is unable to do anything without the machine knowing or monitoring."
In his report for the GMB union, Prof Blakemore said the new technology was raising a host of ethical issues, with the danger that the computer was taking over the human rather than humans using computers.
There is also concern that the new technology might create new industrial injuries because of the need for workers to make repetitive move ments with their arms and wrists, similar to repetitive strain injuries caused by overusing computers.
But the companies say the system makes the delivery of food more efficient, cuts out waste, reduces theft and can reorder goods more quickly.
One firm, Peacock Retail Group, claims workers like the system. The company, which has a modern centre in Nantgarw, south Wales, where employees have 28 wearable computers and six mounted on trucks, says the system has a positive impact on team morale. "Everybody likes the wearables because they are comfortable and easy to use. The result is the team finds it easier to do the job," it says on the company website.
A spokeswoman for Tesco last night insisted that the company was not using the technology to monitor the staff and said it was making employees' work easier and reducing the need for paper.
But at the GMB's annual conference in Newcastle yesterday one of the union's national officers, Paul Campbell, said: "We are having reports of people walking out of jobs after a few days' work, in some cases just a few hours. They are all saying that they don't like the job because they have no input. They just followed a computer's instructions."
Paul Kenny, acting general secretary, said: "The GMB is no Luddite organisation but we will not stand idly by to see our members reduced to automatons. The use of this technology needs to be redesigned to be an aid to the worker rather than making the worker its slave.
"The supermarkets that rely on just-in-time shelf-filling rather than holding buffer stocks are incredibly prof itable companies. They can well afford to operate a humanised supply team."
Other monitoring devices are being developed in the US, including ones that can check on the productivity of secretaries by measuring the number of key strokes on their word processors; satellite technology is also being developed to monitor productivity in manufacturing jobs.
Two London firms are considering using satellites to direct sandwich board holders, making sure they are not shirking and moving them to areas with more people.