The Guardian view on toilet breaks: stop all the clocks

How many times a day do you use the loo? Around eight is normal. But most of us don’t count, because we don’t care. This is as it should be. While it’s good to have some awareness of what is going on with one’s bladder and bowel – along with the rest of one’s body, diet, sleep patterns and so on – preoccupation with bodily functions and waste products is generally the preserve (and favoured comedy source material) of toddlers.

But over the past few years, as concerns have grown around automation and surveillance in the workplace, some people have been obliged to pay much closer attention to their personal habits. Employers in the home delivery and online retail sectors especially have become known for intensive monitoring of performance, in their quest for efficiency, via specially designed apps and tracking devices. In Amazon’s UK warehouses, for example, as the writer James Bloodworth discovered when he worked in one undercover, managers inform workers if their shift records too much “idle time” – a category that includes minutes spent using the toilet or fetching a drink of water (Bloodworth thought such rules the likely explanation for a bottle of urine he found tucked away on a shelf).

Two months after launching its “period dignity” campaign with a call for employers and schools to provide free sanitary products in female washrooms, the union Unite chose World Toilet Day – a UN initiative to highlight the global sanitation crisis – to highlight what it calls toilet dignity, and the lack of it, in the UK. Examples uncovered by the union include a bank branch where male workers were expected to urinate in a bucket to reduce time away from customers, a lack of facilities for female construction workers, and call centre workers being required to log out when leaving their work stations to answer a call of nature. Women are worst affected due to their periods, among other factors (childbirth is among the causes of incontinence, while the need to undress and sit down means urination takes women longer).

While there is an obvious remedy to such humiliations as the bucket (get rid of it), the wider problem of overly controlling management is harder to fix. Workplaces should not be organised in such a way that human beings can’t easily look after their needs while also performing their duties. The human cost of such rules is more than the loss of pride. Delivery driver Don Lane died in January from diabetes, after missing hospital appointments because he was afraid of being fined by courier company DPD, which is being sued by his widow.

The report by former political strategist Matthew Taylor on workers’ rights in the gig economy was supposed to provide answers. The government’s response has yet to be implemented. Until robust legislation is in place, employees remain vulnerable. But it shouldn’t take the courts, or parliament, to force companies to stop acting as though people are a nuisance – to stop watching the clock while their workers are on the toilet.

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