- 7-Eleven and other stores are monitoring workers 24/7 to prevent theft and shoplifting.
- But some franchisees were recently told to return $173 million to workers in a wage-theft case.
- Some experts say it reflects a “dual standard” that assumes low-wage workers can’t be trusted.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Workers at some 7-Eleven stores, Shell gas stations, Dairy Queen restaurants, Holiday Inn hotels and other service businesses are being monitored 24/7 via security cameras by a “virtual supervisor,” Vice News reported Monday.
The Washington-based company Live Eye offers the surveillance technology for $399 per month. It is ostensibly meant to help business owners deter shoplifting, robberies, and employee theft.
In Live Eye’s promotional videos, according to Vice, remote supervisors question convenience store workers about whether they paid for drinks and why they’re talking to a person who’s out of view of the camera, and even attempt to scare off suspected robbers in what appears to be a 7-Eleven store.
Theft and fraud aren’t small problems – they cost retailers $62 billion in 2019, according to the National Retail Foundation.
But experts are increasingly raising concerns about whether such intrusive and persistent surveillance may impose even greater costs on workers. They’re also asking why problems like wage theft – with employers in 2019 stealing an estimated $12.6 billion from workers making less than $13 per hour, according to the National Employment Law Project – receive far less scrutiny.
7-Eleven and Live Eye did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Part of the problem, some experts say, stems from the prejudices many people hold against low-wage workers and low-income individuals.
“When it comes to low-wage work and people who are on welfare, there’s just this general distrust,” Aiha Nguyen, a researcher at the think tank Data & Society who recently wrote a report on workplace surveillance called “The Constant Boss,” told Insider.
“It has nothing to do with technology,” she said, adding there’s a “dual standard” in how employers treat low-wage workers compared to corporate employees and executives.
The NRF’s survey found retail chains fired an average of 559 employees for stealing in 2019, and prosecuted an average of 156, while research by the Economic Policy Institute found employers are rarely prosecuted and underfunded labor regulators often lack the ability to enforce wage laws.
7-Eleven announced last year that some of its franchisees paid $173 million in back wages to more than 4,000 workers in Australia after media outlets including Four Corners and The Sydney Morning Herald reported the company stole as much as half of workers’ wages, doctored pay records to cover up the scheme, and threatened potential whistleblowers with deportation.
During an investigation by Australia’s labor regulator, 7-Eleven’s head office in the country faced accusations that it had bribed franchisees not to testify against its executives. (7-Eleven denied the accusations).
While the company’s chairman, Russell Withers, and CEO Warren Wilmot, eventually resigned, Withers went on to pocket $78 million from selling stakes in 7-Eleven stores. Wilmot faced no financial or criminal penalties as a result of the scandal.
In that context, Nguyen said, theft by 7-Eleven store employees “is a much smaller problem than that bigger issue of wage theft.”
But that’s not to say tools like Live Eye are inherently bad.
“In theory, this system could be helpful” for retail workers, Nguyen said, “but that’s not how it’s being deployed.”
Hiring a security guard would be far more effective at deterring theft, she said, “but what’s being presented is a video camera that may be turned on the workers themselves.” It is not immediately clear if, and how many, 7-Eleven stores employ a security guard in addition to other safety measures.
A former 7-Eleven consultant told Vice that Live Eye was “a solution in search of a problem,” because theft and shoplifting doesn’t cost stores much, and that startling armed robbers violated the company’s policy and could put workers in more danger.
“We provide every 7-Eleven store with a base security system that includes CCTV and alarms, however, independent franchise owners can install their own system on top of what is provided,” a 7-Eleven spokesperson told Vice.
“We’re using insecurity about the risk of robbery as an excuse to target workers,” Eva Blum-Dumontet, a senior researcher at Privacy International, told Vice, adding: “what’s happening with workplace surveillance is employers trying to keep track of their employees to make sure they match their idea of productivity. This is very toxic for the mental health of employees.”