Nanjing is using location-tracking smartwatches to spy on street cleaners

Society & Culture

An extremely disturbing video, making rounds on the Chinese internet, shows street cleaners in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, being forced to wear wristbands that have the ability to track their precise locations and send warnings if they stay still for more than 20 minutes while at work.

In the viral clip (in Chinese) filmed by reporters at a local TV station called Jiangsu City Channel, several street sweepers in the city can be seen wearing black smartwatches provided by the local government. According to them, the gear is designed to monitor their performance by keeping track of their real-time locations, and the data acquired by the equipment is sometimes used against them as evidence of “slacking off.”

“It starts talking to me after I stop moving for 20 minutes,” a cleaner told the reporter. “It says ‘Keep it up! Keep it up!’” said another cleaner.

It seems that the street sweepers weren’t given much explanation or chance to refuse when they were asked to put on the watches. “I heard that they have a big screen to monitor us. They’ll come to you if you do something wrong,” a cleaner said without clarifying what “they” means. In any case, it sounds a lot like a Big Brother-type surveillance system.

Screen Shot 2019 04 03 at 10.37.49 PM

The most troubling part of the video comes when the reporter pays a visit to the company that made the watches. It turns out that the company is collaborating with the local government on a project called “intelligent cleaning.” In the control center, a giant screen displays a number of dots on a municipal map, each representing one cleaner.

An employee said that the devices serve as an efficient tool to review the cleaners’ performance by identifying how many hours they work and whether they step out of their designated areas during work hours, which is considered a violation of company policies.

Thankfully, the watches are not advanced enough to track workers’ exact movements. But this raises a question: how can the company tell if a cleaner is just wandering on the streets but not actually performing the job? In response to a similar question raised by the reporter, a senior manager at the company made a hilariously ineffective argument that for street sweepers, staying at a place for over 20 minutes almost always suggests a lack of efficiency. The person didn’t provide any data or scientific evidence to support his argument.

The footage quickly sent the Chinese internet into outrage, with many questioning (in Chinese) the company and the local government about their disrespectful treatment of street sweepers, who are notoriously underpaid and overworked.

Screen Shot 2019 04 03 at 3.59.16 PM“Workers are not allowed to take a moment to rest?”

Screen Shot 2019 04 03 at 4.02.42 PM“Government officials should wear similar devices that also film them all day long. This is a better idea because they can prevent officials from going astray.”

Screen Shot 2019 04 03 at 4.00.12 PM“If you have no trust in these cleaners, why don’t you sweep the streets yourself?”

Screen Shot 2019 04 03 at 3.59.41 PM“So they never thought about using the money spent on these wristbands to do something good for the public or improve the work environment and increase benefits for street cleaners?”

Screen Shot 2019 04 03 at 4.03.07 PM“This is blatant discrimination.”

Screen Shot 2019 04 03 at 3.59.32 PM“So disgraceful. Are they treating street cleaners like tireless robots for exploitation?”