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Tesco Monitors Employees With Motorola Armbands

Employees replenishes bread stocks in the bakery at a Tesco Metro store in London

Photograph by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Employees replenishes bread stocks in the bakery at a Tesco Metro store in London

There’s a fine line between micromanaging and house arrest, and British grocery store chain Tesco (TSCO:LN) seems determined to cross it. According to the Irish Independent, employees at the company’s Dublin distribution center are forced to wear armbands that measure their productivity so closely that the company even knows when they take a bathroom break.

The armbands, officially known as Motorola arm-mounted terminals, look like something between a Game Boy and Garmin GPS device. The terminals keep track of how quickly and competently employees unload and scan goods in the warehouse and gives them a grade. It also sets benchmarks for loading and unloading speed, which workers are expected to meet. The monitors can be turned off during workers’ lunch breaks, but anything else—bathroom trips, visits to a water fountain—reportedly lowers their productivity score. Tesco did not respond to requests for comment, so it’s hard to know if the arm bands have been a success.

In recent years, Tesco has ramped up its productivity. From 2007 to 2012, the average number of full-time employees in a standard 40,000-square-foot Tesco superstore reportedly fell nearly 18 percent. And in November, the company launched a program in Bangladesh to help its overseas garment workers “improve productivity while improving conditions,” as the company put it in a press release at the time.

Unfortunately, this push into efficiency doesn’t always translate into quality. Tesco is one of the major retailers currently embroiled in Europe’s ever-widening horse meat scandal. When it turns out that the box frozen spaghetti Bolognese contains 60 percent horse meat, it doesn’t really matter how quickly it was unloaded from the delivery truck.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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