There are simple solutions to workplace safety problems
- proper systems, risk assessments, asking the workforce how the job
can be made safer. They usually require management to remedy management
Many companies have opted instead for bugging, harassing
and monitoring their workers. Drug and alcohol tests are becoming more
common. Keystroke rates, web usage and emails are monitored, telephone
conversations eavesdropped. Smart cards have introduced the workplace
equivalent of electronic tagging. The boss may know you are reading
The justifications are varied - increasing productivity,
reducing sick leave, weeding out bad habits, stopping theft and fraudulent
compensation claims, workplace security, identifying troublemakers -
and, frequently, workplace health and safety.
never work alone
Employers will go to extraordinary
lengths to monitor their workforce - and the results can be dangerous
monitoring: Studies show productivity drops when workers
are monitored and worker health can be adversely affected. A US
study found monitored workers suffered more depression, extreme
anxiety, severe fatigue or exhaustion, strain injuries and neck
problems than unmonitored workers. And it is not just hi-tech
monitoring that's a problem some employers think policing
their workers toilet breaks is perfectly acceptable .
Medical screening: Employers should look to fit
the job to the worker, but frequently do the opposite, attempting
to winnow out the weak, the injured or the ill. Europe under
strain, a 1999 report from the European trade union safety
think tank TUTB, commented that "workers are not there
to provide the flexibility in the system, through contorting
and stressing their bodies and brains to cope with poorly designed
equipment or systems of work, or through increasing their work
rate to accommodate production demands, or because the workforce
is too stretched, too cowed or too insecure to complain"
Drugs testing: Tests are frequently unreliable,
do not assess ability or otherwise to do the job and testing
does not address the risks factors, including work stress, that
can cause or exacerbate substance misuse problems. Testing
times, a November 2003 report from Hazards magazine
noted: "Drink and drug use can be a problem for workers
but that is no justification for workplace testing. In
fact, supportive approaches are far more effective" .
Genetic tests: Screening for "hypersusceptible"
workers is "likely to present a new threat in the future,"
according to the London-based Institute of Employment Rights
Gene machine, a November 2003 report from Hazards
magazine warns that studies have shown the tests to be of limited
scientific validity and little relevance to work situations.
They could also lead in practice to the exclusion of black workers
or other minorities from certain jobs .
drugs and alcohol webpages
genetic screening webpages
Stress down the
Employers are keeping a close eye on your behaviour inside and outside
work. But monitoring the workforce can be bad for productivity and
very bad for health.
Surveillance and privacy at work, a February 1999 report from
the UK Institute of Employment Rights ,
notes that old-fashioned supervision and medical tests and new surveillance
techniques including video surveillance, smart cards, telephone evesdropping
and computer productivity or work quality monitoring represent "an
alarming threat to the privacy and autonomy of workers" and "can
actually damage workers' health."
Lack of autonomy at work is accepted as a major cause of work-related
stress and strains, heart disease and sickness .
Research published last year showed that workers doing meaningless
work with little opportunity for input were more likely to die young.
Specific European privacy laws, supported by Europe's unions and
opposed by employers, are in the pipeline. The European Commission
is consulting on a new law on the protection of workers' personal
The proposed framework will cover data about employees, including
personal health records, emails and internet use, and issues of consent,
drug and genetic testing and monitoring and surveillance. Key concerns
are that workplace reps are adequately informed and consulted.
Among the reasons for the legislative move by the European Commission
was concern at the increasing use by employers of electronic surveillance
and cheaper and easier drug and genetic tests. The EC hopes to publish
a draft of the planned EU wide law in 2004 or 2005.
Snooping council pays out after assault on
A social worker has received more than
£200,000 in compensation after enduring a vicious assault
"which could have been avoided." The victim's union,
UNISON, condemned Swansea City and County Council after the
worker and her family were videotaped by private detectives
checking out her injuries.
The social worker, who was in her 30s,
was attacked by a client in a Swansea social services office
in June 1998, resulting in serious injuries and psychological
trauma which meant the social worker was not able to work again.
Despite having been previously threatened by the client - a
fact known to social services management - the UNISON member
was told to meet the assailant alone and was subjected to a
terrifying physical attack.
Paul Elliott, UNISON head of local government
for Cymru/Wales, said: "What is worse is that this could
have easily have been avoided." He added: "The use
of private detectives with video cameras to test the worker's
claim of injury questioned the integrity of a loyal employee."
Video snooping on compensation claimants
was condemned last year by lord chief justice Lord Woolf in
an appeal court judgment.
144, 21 February 2004
Goose cooked for peeking dicks
Health service bosses in Sydney,
Australia, sacrificed staff and patient safety in a "Keystone
Cops" effort to entrap workers whose jobs it wanted to
privatise. Bosses had engaged private eyes to trail, photograph
and videotape the guards illegally, before they were sacked
for nipping out to buy Chinese takeaways during 12 hour shifts.
148, 20 March 2004
Whether you consider workplace surveillance a good thing or a bad
thing, it is a fact that technology is being used in a way inside
the workplace that would lead to outrage or even criminal charges
outside of it.
Electronic tagging, technology only now being trialled, contentiously,
on convicted criminals is available over the counter to keep electronic
tabs on staff. The security forces need a warrant from a High Court
judge to tap a phone, employers need to buy a gizmo.
Recent cases include:
A social worker who received more than £200,000 in compensation
after enduring a vicious assault by a client "which could have
been avoided". The victim's union, UNISON, condemned Swansea
City and County Council after the worker, who was not able to work
again, and her family were videotaped by private detectives checking
out her injuries.
At Guys Hospital the local trade union officials discovered
hidden cameras in the staff locker room and post room. The management
claimed that the police had advised them to install cameras to investigate
alleged mail tampering. However the police denied giving any such
advice and the cameras were removed.
In another case, unions found that cameras had been installed
in a locker room used by female staff to change. The employer, Securicor
said the cameras had been installed in the wrong room.
Across the Atlantic, where similar techniques are used, the American
Civil Liberties Union says "even criminals have more privacy
rights than employees. If the FBI wants to tap the telephone of someone
who is spying against the country, they must get a court order...
Only in the workplace can surveillance be conducted without safeguards."
According to Michelle Jankanish, co-author of Workers' privacy:
Monitoring and surveillance in the workplace, a heavyweight International
Labour Office report :
"Workers' rights to privacy should be treated as a fundamental
human rights issue, but the new technology can pose dangers to privacy,
even as it is improving all our lives... Just because you cross the
door into the employer's office, it doesn't mean you give up all your
In June 2003, TUC welcomed the publication by the UK government's
Information Commissioner of a Monitoring at work code of practice
employers on the legal limits of snooping on staff. Brendan Barber,
TUC general secretary, said: "The code clears up much of the
legal confusion around bosses monitoring employees. It makes clear
to staff that they must be told if, how and why their email, phone
calls, internet use and other behaviour is being monitored. Employees
and unions are now better equipped to ensure the right to privacy
at work is respected."
In December 2003, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas said the
next phase of the consultation on the Employment Practices Data Protection
Code - the consultation closes on 27 February 2004 - will cover information
about workers' health, and could curtail workplace drug and alcohol
tests, genetic screening and snooping into personal medical histories
the code will be guidance and not regulation, breaches of the code
are likely to be cited in employment tribunals.
The draft code says drug and alcohol testing should be limited to
workers in jobs that pose particular safety risks. It says it will
be deemed "intrusive" to obtain information about workers'
health," and adds: "Workers have legitimate expectations
that they can keep their personal health information private and that
employers will respect this privacy." The code also makes clear
that companies must not use genetic testing to make predictions about
workers' future general health.
Employers should gather information about staff health only if they
can satisfy a "sensitive data condition," most likely for
health and safety reasons, to prevent discrimination on the grounds
of disability, or if a worker has given consent.
Europe's law makers are so concerned they felt that European Union
member states should have laws to protect people at work from oppressive
But for now the monitoring continues. And some of it, despite evidence
it is bad for your health, is justified on safety grounds.
In the background notes to the European Commission's Second stage
consultation of social partners on the protection of workers' personal
data, it notes: "Collection of personal data takes place
even before the beginning of the employment relationship for the purposes
of recruitment; it continues throughout employment and may extend
even after its termination. It is legitimised through a number of
specific purposes such as compliance with law, ensuring health, safety
and security, assisting selection, training and promotion, assessing
performance, controlling quality and customer service, verifying entitlement
to certain benefits etc."
At the June 2003 launch of a TUC online guide to monitoring and surveillance
at work, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "With advances
in monitoring technology, some workplaces have come to resemble TV's
Big Brother, only without the prizes. Workers do have rights to privacy,
but they need to be aware of them in order to stand up for them. Staff,
unions, and employers need to arrive at a solution which balances
business needs with the right to individual privacy."
These concerns are real enough, and they are not new. In the press
blurb accompanying the 1994 US launch of the ILO workers' privacy
report the stark warning of Canada's Privacy Commissioner was given
some prominence. "With each new form of surveillance, we become
less like individuals and more like automatons, monitored for defects
and aberrant behaviour that will consign us to the reject pile or
mark us for 'corrective' measures."
ILO's report, based on evidence collated from 19 industrialised nations,
concluded Big Brother looms large in the workplace and workers
health and welfare is being damaged as a result. Scrutinised by computers,
cameras and assorted bugs, workers are steadily losing privacy at
work as technological advances "allow employers to monitor nearly
every facet of time on the job," the report says.
Michelle Jankanish, co-author of the ILO workplace privacy report,
commented on its launch: "It doesn't matter whether you work
in a factory, in an office or as a highly paid engineer or professional
you are very likely under observation, with or without your
permission, in some way by computers or machines controlled by your
An August 2003 European Industrial Relations Observatory (EIRO) report
 on the
privacy implications of new technology at work notes "as far
as workers and their representatives are concerned, the main danger
lies in the new capacity that exists for monitoring and surveillance."
It adds: "New technology may allow employees' work and productivity
to be monitored, and also aspects of their personal lives, while their
use of the internet and e-mail can be subject to monitoring (not least
because of the traces any such use leaves). This raises questions
of both privacy and the relationship of control at the workplace.
These dangers can be even greater, and the surveillance technology
even more advanced, in situations where there is a physical distance
between the worker and the employer."
And it is not just privacy that is at stake electronic monitoring
is bad for workers' health. "The consequences of monitoring and
surveillance on the health and welfare of employees are of particular
concern," concluded the ILO workplace privacy report.
Drawing on research including reports from US government agencies
the Office of Technological Assessment 
and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, it
concludes: "Not only does electronic monitoring have the 'potential'
to adversely influence working conditions which have been shown to
cause stress, but it may actually create these adverse working conditions,
such as paced work, lack of involvement, reduced task variety and
clarity, reduced peer social support, reduced supervisory support,
fear of job loss, routinised work activities and lack of control over
One NIOSH study quoted in the report showed that for data-entry workers
who were struggling to meet performance targets "the use of electronic
performance monitoring elicits a pattern of psychological distress
and physical discomfort. The group which was monitored had higher
self-ratings of mood disturbances (irritation, time urgency, work
dissatisfaction and musculoskeletal discomfort (hand and neck discomfort)."
Why bug workers?
An employer's motives in introducing surveillance, or a worker's
perception of the employer's motives, could define ideal circumstances
for these symptoms of physical and psychological stress to be created
or exacerbated. Against a backdrop of corporate "downsizing"
and growing job insecurity across the industrial world, it is understandable
that many workers might consider an electronic spy no ally.
In her 1993 evidence to the US Senate Committee on Labor and Human
Resources CWA's Barbara Easterling gave a string of examples of abuse
of workplace monitoring, including:
A middle-aged man whose work was subject to telephone service
observation was admitted to hospital after taking a drug overdose.
He said that he needed one more "upper" to face the start
of another day;
A young woman employed as a travel reservation agent was threatened
with discipline after monitoring revealed she was not meeting the
office productivity standard. She explained that she had been trying
to cope with morning sickness (her first pregnancy) and the sudden
death of her mother. This explanation was not acceptable to management;
A computer operator discovered several months after she was
hired that a computer was keeping track of her workday activities,
including her time in the toilet;
Nurses in a hospital discovered that management had installed
a concealed camera in their locker room. The camera was monitored
by male security guards who watched the nurses change clothes into
their hospital uniforms. The nurses were kept in the dark about this
"peeping Tom" invasion of their privacy.
Bad companies, bad managers, have always abused their power and their
employees' rights. But electronic surveillance is a strikingly powerful
new tool in the bad employer's armoury. And even good employers may
not be fully aware of the cost in terms of lost motivation, stress
and general resentment that may accompany its introduction.
The ILO report makes reference to the industrial version of electronic
tagging. "Many workers have complained about systems that keep
track of their location within the workplace. For example, an identification
card system used by some railway companies based in St Louis, Missouri,
records the location and length of time that employees spend in each
area of the building by flashing the card across an electronic sensor.
A computer recorded whether they were in the lavatory, another workstation,
the pay phone area, the smoking lounge, and the like. Employees have
been disciplined on the basis of these figures, which the employees
maintain are irrelevant to job performance. Workers in Austria have
lodged similar complaints."
Big Brother is all eyes and ears
Technology makes it possible to electronically monitor any worker,
anywhere. Commonly used techniques include:
Used in buildings security can also track workers' movements, monitor
rest breaks, and hold personnel and occupational health records.
Biometric data: Fast food giant McDonalds
this year introduced hand and thumb scanners into some of its Canadian
outlets. Biometric devices - machines that identify fingerprints,
hands, eyes or faces - are getting cheaper and attracting interest
from major North American firms.
Computers: Software can measure work
rate and error rate of keyboard workers, web usage or emails
in fact, any electronic work you do. "Black box" and "works
manager" devices can monitor and distribute work to offsite employees,
and know what you do and where. Checkout workers and some warehouse
staff have their every work action policed by stocktaking software.
GPS devices use satellites to track vehicles, from delivery trucks
to snow ploughs.
Remote listening: Eavesdropping on
telephone calls is commonplace, particularly in call centres and telephone
Video surveillance: Closed circuit
television (CCTV) used in security systems can be used for other purposes
ILO notes that one US company set up its cameras to spy on
union activists. Guy's hospital in London was criticised for using
hidden cameras in rest rooms. The permanent positioning of cameras
in the toilets of a drug testing facility in Mount Isa Mines was condemned
by Australian union AMWU in 2002 as "a gross invasion of privacy
and an example of drug testing policy gone mad" .
And they are not restricting the spying to inside the workplace. UK
unions have found compensation claims for genuine work-related injuries
contested after insurers acting for employers presented secretly filmed
Bar codes: Scanners are used to monitor
workers postal workers in the UK have been required to scan
a bar code at each letter box they empty.
Members of the UK Communication Workers Union (CWU) were surprised
to discover British Telecom, one of Britain's largest companies,
had its own internal security force, Sec-ID. Few had suspected
the company of setting up, harassing, slandering and finally
disciplining its own employees, all with the aid of squad of
But CWU union reps at the union's 1999 conference found out
that the company was guilty on all counts. And the name BT gave
to its underhand, under cover activities? Project Orwell. BT's
project name was inspired by George Orwell's dark novel, 1984,
catchphrase "Big brother is watching you."
CWU rep Kate Hankey said the company had "blatantly set
up" employees and was guilty of "deliberate entrapment."
Members were harangued by supposed customers in fact
the private detectives who harassed workers to the point
where some broke the company's official procedures .
After suffering a disabling back injury at work, British Telecom
(BT) engineer Steve Crawley was horrified when shown three video
clips by a union solicitor. The videos of Steve and his family
had been taken secretly over a seven week period by private
detectives working for BT.
The spying was a last ditch attempt to try and avoid paying
compensation for Steve's injuries. Despite the video "evidence",
the company eventually caved in and agreed an out-of-court settlement
of almost £300,000.
Steve commented: "The pressure started to get to me. I
thought I was cracking up. I felt like a criminal."
These undercover operations are not approved of by the courts.
In 2003 insurance companies were told to think twice before
sending private investigators incognito into the homes of workplace
compensation claimants, after a company was castigated by the
lord chief justice Lord Woolf in an appeal court judgment (Hazards
Insurer Zurich hired a private investigator to impersonate
a market researcher, gain access to a claimant's house and secretly
video tape her. Lord Woolf said this was "improper and
not justified," adding the insurer's motivation to achieve
a just result "does not justify either the commission of
trespass or the contravention of the claimant's privacy which
To discourage such tactics, now widely used by insurers trying
to discredit compensation claims, Lord Woolf ordered the company
to pay the costs of the application.
A spokesperson for Zurich said the company now realised the
practice was unacceptable and required its agents to sign up
to a voluntary code of conduct agreeing not to use it.
It seems there is no hiding place from snooping bosses. The
same March 2004 day TUC warned that Big Brother employers are
jeopardising both productivity and their workers' health, Royal
Mail managers were warned about spying on striking workers.
97, 15 March 2003
148, 20 March 2004
Bad for business
Whether it is unhealthy or not, regulated or not, does electronic
surveillance of the workforce actually work?
A fair body of evidence suggests not it may, however, create
stress and demotivation, and foster distrust between workers and management.
According to Michelle Jankanish, co-author of the ILO's workers' privacy
report: "Companies like to engage in such monitoring, even though
many admit that the practice elicits little or no useful information."
She points to a survey of 393 firms in Canada, Europe and the United
States in which firms were asked about the use and effectiveness of
various surveillance practices. More than two-thirds of all firms
said that searches and electronic monitoring are ineffective or counterproductive."
Even where monitoring is introduced with the best of motives, the
effect can be negative, says the ILO report, quoting the example of
Japan. "The surveillance is aimed mainly at ensuring safety and
health at the workplace, and quality of service. Quality of service
means, however, that individual performance may be subject to scrutiny."
Workers do not appear to appreciate or perform well under this scrutiny.
One study quoted in the ILO report was undertaken to examine the influence
of electronic performance monitoring (EPM) of work on stress and performance
in data entry operators. "EPM work management led to significant
increases in data entry speed, but were accompanied by significant
increases in data entry errors," says the report.
"The results, according to the researchers, suggest that when
performance goals or standards which emphasise speed over accuracy
are applied in work settings where EPM is used to manage work, speed
increments may be offset by decreases in work quality."
In evidence to the US Select Committee, CWA's Barbara Easterling
went further, including a section in her submission headed "the
false claim that monitoring ensures service quality," with several
examples where increases in surveillance were followed by a fall in
productivity and vice versa.
On one example she said: "Twelve years ago, legislation that
prohibited secret telephone monitoring was signed into law in West
Virginia by then-Governor Jay Rockefeller. Despite the absence of
such surveillance, the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company of
West Virginia ranked first in America among Bell System companies
in six of 12 'customer satisfaction' categories..."
I object problems with electronic monitoring
ILO summarises the objections of workers or workers' organisations
to obtrusive computer monitoring in the workplace as:
Their use is a violation of basic human rights and dignity,
and is often carried out without adequate consideration for
Computer data banks and telephone and video monitoring
make prying into the private lives of workers easier to perform
and more difficult to detect than ever before;
Monitoring and surveillance give employees the feeling
that they are not to be trusted, fostering a divisive mentality
which is destructive to both workers and employers;
Such practices can be used to discriminate or retaliate
against workers, which may be difficult for workers to discover;
Monitoring and surveillance involve both issues of exercising
control over workers and control over data relating to specific
Back to main story
Stress down the line
In the late 1980s, concern among members of the US trade union
Communications Workers of America (CWA) about the health effects
of electronic surveillance reached such a level the union commissioned
its own research, "the first major investigation into the
relationship between health symptoms and telephone workers who
are monitored electronically."
A questionnaire survey was sent to employees of telecommunication
companies AT&T and the seven regional Bell operating
companies representative of each region in the United
States. Questionnaires were sent to 2,900 employees and 745
useable responses were received.
According to ILO, the study, conducted by CWA and the University
of Wisconsin, "confirmed earlier studies that implicated
electronic monitoring as a major stress factor in the workplace,
which is linked, in part, to the sense of powerlessness that
monitored employees feel."
In June 1993, in testimony to the US Senate Committee on Labor
and Human Resources during its deliberations on a proposed Privacy
for Consumers and Workers Act, CWA Secretary-Treasurer Barbara
J Easterling presented the research findings ,
commenting: "The study revealed that workers employed by
the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) and
the seven regional Bell operating companies in jobs that were
monitored electronically experienced higher levels of psychological
and physical problems than did workers employed by those eight
companies in jobs that were not monitored electronically.
ILO concluded: "The findings showed that the electronic
monitoring of employee performance adversely affected employee
perceptions of their working conditions. Monitored workers reported
more musculoskeletal problems and headaches than those who were
University of Wisconsin Telecommunications research
Not monitored %
|Severe fatigue or exhaustion
Back to main story
1. Give us a break! Hazards
81, pages 18-19, January-March 2003.
2. Rory O'Neill. Europe under strain:
A report on trade union initiatives to combat workplace musculoskeletal
disorders, TUTB, 1999. ISBN 2-930003-29-4. www.etuc.org/tutb
3. Testing times. Hazards 84,
pages 4-5, October-December 2003.
4. Michael Ford. Surveillance and
privacy at work, Institute of Employment Rights, 1999. IER
5. Gene machine. Hazards 84,
pages 16-17, October-December 2003.
6. Drop dead! Hazards 83, pages
16-17, July-September 2003.
7. Commission issues second stage
consultation on data protection, EIRO, November 2002.
8. Workers' privacy. Part II: Monitoring
and surveillance in the workplace. Conditions of Work Digest,
Vol.12, No.1, 1993. ILO. ISBN 92-2-108740-9.
Also see: ILO meeting adopts draft code of practice on protection
of workers' data, ILO news release, 7 October 1996.
9. Employment Practices Data Protection
Code - Monitoring at Work, Information Commission, June 2003.
Employment Practices Data Protection Code Part 4: Information about
workers health, ICO, 2004. more
10. New technology and respect
for privacy at the workplace, EIRO, August 2003.
11. United States Congress, Office
of Technology Assessment (OTA): The electronic supervisor: New technology,
new tensions, OTA-CIT-333. Washington DC, US Government Printing
Office, September 1987.
12. Union objects to cameras in
toilets. Workers Online, Australia, 11 February 2002.
13. You'll never work alone.
Hazards 66, page 3, April-June 1999
14. MJ Smith et al. Electronic
performance monitoring and job stress in telecommunications jobs.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Industrial Engineering
and the Communications Workers of America, 5 October 1990. University
of Wisconsin-Madison, 1513 University Avenue, Madison, Wisconsin 53706,
screening online resource
and alcohol online resource
breaks online resource
balance online resource
to death online resource
TUC WorkSMART monitoring
and internet policies guide
Big Brother is watching you, so join a union. Amicus
MSF news release, 12 November 1999
Who's watching you at work? Labour
Council of New South Wales
International Labour Organisation workers'
privacy webpage and technical
and ethical guidelines for workers' health surveillance
Liberty privacy/surveillance webpage
Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Workers'
Electronic monitoring: You'll never work alone, Workers' Health
International Newsletter, no.45/46, Winter 1995/96 [pdf].
National Work Rights Institute, Electronic
Introduction to the Data Protection Act 
TUC Surveillance at Work: Sensible Solutions
UNISON Bargaining on Privacy
Britain: MPs speak out Amazon's 'climate of distrust'
A committee of MPs has warned that workplace surveillance by global retailer Amazon is stressing out its workers. The cross-party House of Commons' BEIS Committee's report on UK labour markets warns that Amazon's “surveillance practices (for whatever intention they are deployed) are leading to distrust, micromanagement and, in some cases, disciplinary action against its workers.”
Post-pandemic economic growth: UK labour markets, BEIS committee tenth report, 21 April 2023.
26 April 2023
Britain: Protecting information about workers’ health
Health information is some of the most sensitive personal information that might be processed about workers and must be protected, the TUC has said. Responding to an Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) consultation, the union body warned the draft guidance would not adequately support all the groups who might seek to use it, adding it needs more explicit recognition of the important role played by unions and equalities groups.
TUC update and TUC response to ICO on ‘Employment practices information about workers’ health’.
7 March 2023
Britain: Surveillance software being used on tech workers
One in five tech workers are subject to employee monitoring or gathering technologies, according to a new Prospect survey of members and non-members in tech jobs. Only 11 per cent of respondents reported being very sure what data their employer collects about them and why.
Prospect news release.
3 November 2022
Britain: HSE must combat AI spying at work
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) must be empowered to combat the creeping use of artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor staff in the workplace, MPs have been told. Dr Matthew Cole from the Fairwork, which promotes better working practices for app-based employees, said:“HSE should play a greater role in the regulation of AI systems, to uphold standards of employment,” adding “excessive monitoring” can lead to “increased stress and anxiety and we know they can have significant negative impact on health.”
Connected tech: smart or sinister?, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee investigation, 1 November 2022 oral hearings and video of evidence session. Fairwork. Morning Star.
3 November 2022
USA: Food giants use smartwatch app to monitor workers
Two of America’s largest meat companies - JBS and Tyson Foods - have invested in a smartwatch application that allows managers to monitor workers’ movements. The start-up behind the application, Mentore, claims to improve worker productivity while reducing injuries, however experts said the use of digital technologies and artificial intelligence to manage workers can have negative effects, such as increased stress and injuries, particularly when companies use the technology to make disciplinary decisions.
21 October 2022
Britain: PCS slams Cabinet Office computer surveillance
The union PCS has raised concerns about a worrying Big Brother-style development which could be used to victimise home-working civil servants. The Cabinet Office says it has introduced surveillance in a bid to boost efficiency following a fall in office occupancy, despite thousands of civil servants working from home since 2020 and successfully delivering services to the public.
PCS news release. Morning Star. Risks 1059.
15 September 2022
Britain: Work surveillance is hurting mental health
One in three workers feel technological surveillance by bosses has a negative impact on their mental health, new GMB research has found. Artificial intelligence should be used to make working life easier for people, not trap them in an “Orwellian nightmare,” the union warned.
14 June 2022
Britain: Rules needed on intrusive worker surveillance
Intrusive worker surveillance tech and AI risks “spiralling out of control” without stronger regulation to protect workers, the TUC has warned. Left unchecked, the union body says that these technologies could lead to widespread discrimination, work intensification and unfair treatment.
TUC news release, TUC AI manifesto and examples of surveillance and monitoring of workers. Financial Times. People Management. Risks 1034.
Hazards news, 2 March 2022
Britain: New protections needed to stop work surveillance
Almost one in three (32 per cent) workers are now being monitored at work - up from a quarter (24 per cent) just six months ago in April, research for the union Prospect has found. This work surveillance includes a doubling of the use of camera monitoring in people’s homes, with 13 per cent of home workers currently being monitored by cameras compared to 5 per cent six months ago.
Prospect news release and release on new tech sector. Union News. Risks 1021.
10 November 2021
Britain: Stress fuelled by rise in worker surveillance in Wales
The rapid changes in work brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a sharp rise in the level of surveillance of people’s activities and performance at work and related stress, new Wales TUC research has revealed. The study found a quarter (25 per cent) of workers reported they have been subjected to closer surveillance since March 2020 and only 1 in 4 said that they feel comfortable objecting to such changes.
Wales TUC news release. Sarah Murphy MS comments. Risks 1005.
14 July 2021
Britain: RMT condemns outsourced Mitie over tracking app
Rail union RMT has demanded the withdrawal of a stress-inducing app that giant outsourcing outfit Mitie is attempting to force on staff and which would track their movements. Mitie is insisting staff download the app to their own personal phones, but RMT has condemned the imposition of the app without any consultation and is taking legal advice.
RMT news release. Risks 994.
28 April 2021
Britain: Unite warns safeguards needed on hi-tech work monitoring
Safeguards need to be fully implemented in the workplace to protect workers from the ‘unintended consequences’ of hi-tech monitoring, Unite has warned. The union was speaking out as more hi-tech monitoring equipment for construction workers was put on the market.
Unite news release. Technology managing people – the legal implications, Robin Allen QC and Dee MastersCloisters. A report from the TUC by the AI Law Consultancy, March 2021. The TUC AI manifesto. Risks 992.
14 April 2021
Britain: ‘Big Brother’ fears over Teleperformance webcam plan
Working from home call centre workers say the installation of cameras to monitor remote workers is a “Big Brother” tactic and have said they fear the technology could be open to abuse. Webcams are being sent out this week to thousands of Scottish staff who work for Teleperformance –the largest contact centre company in the world.
Teleperformance news release. Call Centre Collective. Daily Record. Risks 992.
14 April 2021
Britain: Warning on ‘huge gaps’ in the law over AI at work
The TUC and legal experts have warned that “huge gaps” in British law over the use of artificial intelligence (AI) at work could lead to “widespread” discrimination and unfair treatment at work. A new report - carried out for the TUC by leading employment rights lawyers Robin Allen QC and Dee Masters from the AI Law Consultancy – says that employment law is failing to keep pace with the rapid expansion of AI at work.
TUC news release and AI manifesto. Technology managing people – the legal implications, Robin Allen QC and Dee MastersCloisters. A report from the TUC by the AI Law Consultancy, March 2021. Prospect news release. UNISON news release. Computer Weekly. Personnel Today. Risks 991.
Hazards news, 31 March 2021
Britain: Homeworking call centre staff to be monitored by webcam
Thousands of staff at one of the world’s biggest call centre companies face being monitored by webcams to check whether they are eating, looking at their phones or leaving their desks while working from home. Teleperformance – which employs about 380,000 people in 34 countries and counts dozens of major UK companies and government departments among its clients – has told some staff that specialist webcams will be fitted to check for homeworking “infractions”.
The Guardian. Risks 991.
Hazards news, 31 March 2021
Britain: Labour warning on growth in spying at work
Workers must be protected from employers tracking them while they work from home during the pandemic, Labour has said. Online software can log how long it takes people to reply to messages, take camera shots and monitor emails, messages and meeting attendance
Labour Party news release. Morning Star.
Technology managing people: the worker experience, TUC, 30 November 2020. Risks 981.
20 January 2021
Britain: Intrusive monitoring on the rise during coronavirus
The TUC has launched a new taskforce to look at the “creeping role” of artificial intelligence (AI) in managing people at work. The taskforce launch comes as a new TUC report, ‘Technology managing people: the worker experience’, reveals that many workers have concerns over the use of AI and technology in the workplace.
TUC news release, blog and report, Technology managing people: the worker experience, 30 November 2020. Risks 976.
2 December 2020
Britain: Workers concerned about remote monitoring
Workers are ‘deeply uncomfortable’ about the introduction of remote monitoring technology by employers, a Prospect poll has found. Two-thirds of workers are uncomfortable with workplace tech like keystroke and camera monitoring and wearables being used when working remotely, the union said.
Prospect news release. Hazards workplace privacy webpages. Risks 968.
10 October 2020
Britain: Workers forced to add tracking software to own phones
A union representing security staff has hit out at a ‘big brother’ company for forcing workers to download spying software to their personal mobile phones. GMB says Churchill Security has written to employees saying ‘it is the employee’s responsibility to ensure they have a working mobile phone at all times…disciplinary action may be taken due to an employee failing to comply with mobile phone policies’.
GMB news release. The Guardian. Risks 893.
13 April 2019
Britain: Spy-in-the-cab is a dozy idea on trains, says union
Plans to introduce monitors in train cabs in a bid to keep drivers awake is a dozy idea while train companies refuse to deal with work-related fatigue, ASLEF has said. The train drivers’ union was commenting after it emerged Britain's rail safety body is considering installing monitoring devices in trains that constantly scan driver's faces and vibrate their chairs if they start to doze off.
LBC News. Seeing Machines. Risks 878.
8 December 2018
Britain: Microchipping workers is a terrible idea, warns the TUC
The use of technology that allows employers to chip their workers must be discouraged, the TUC has said. Commenting on news that the UK firm BioTeq, which offers the implants to businesses and individuals, has already fitted 150 implants in UK workers.
TUC news release, blog and report on surveillance at work. More on privacy and health and safety. The Observer. Risks 875.
17 November 2018
Britain: Store staff turn to union after spy cameras shock
Staff at a Glasgow health food store have gone on strike and joined a union after discovering secret cameras in rooms where staff changed, just four weeks after opening. Workers at Harvest Stores, some under 18, were horrified and alerted police after findings the lenses hidden in a network modem and air detector.
Glasgow Evening Times. Better than Zero campaign. Risks 858
21 July 2018
Britain: Strike threat over power firm’s ‘hypocritical’ worker monitoring
EDF Energy smart meter installers in London have voted ‘overwhelmingly’ for strike action over the imposition of tracker devices in vehicles and oppressive and ‘hypocritical’ monitoring of workers. What particularly irks Unite is that managers have refused to have the tracker devices in their own company cars and are not included in the drink and drug testing regime.
Unite news release. Risks 840
Hazards news, 10 March 2018
Global: New violence and harassment risks in digital technology
Workers in ‘digitised’ working environments are facing new psychosocial risks and problems with work-related violence and harassment, a study for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has found. University of Leicester business professor Phoebe Moore said: “This includes the ’gig economy’, automation practices and algorithmic management, people analytics, computerisation, wearable tracking. Overall, it’s about the use of big data and quantification to make selective, predictive and prescriptive decisions related to work, workers, and the workplace.”
ILO news release and report, The threat of physical and psychosocial violence and harassment in digitalized work, ILO ACTRAV, February 2018. Risks 836
10 February 2018
USA: Hitech monitoring is getting under our skin
New technologies are being used to monitor employers’ behaviour at work – and potentially outside the workplace. Contract cleaners working for a property management company in the US are being required to upload a Labor Sync app to their personal mobile phones, which uses GPS to monitor both their whereabouts and working hours.
The Guardian. LaborSync app. Risks 836
10 February 2018
Britain: Sports Direct accused of 'emoji con' on disaffected staff
Sports Direct is asking warehouse staff to press a happy or sad face emoji on a touchpad to tell them how they're feeling when they clock in – allowing management to question them if they are disgruntled, the union Unite has said. Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: “It’s nothing short of an emoji con and a bogus exercise to gloss over past failures and some of the problems which still persist in the warehouse.”
Unite news release. The Independent. Risks 816
9 September 2017
Britain: Snooping at work is an unhealthy intrusion
Unions, human resource experts and employers’ bodies have said that snooping on staff is an unwelcome and sometimes unhealthy intrusion. The organisations were speaking out after Europe's top court ruled a Romanian man whose employer read his messages had not had his rights violated.
TUC news release. IoD news release. CIPD news release. BBC News Online. Hazards magazine workplace privacy webpages. Risks 735.
23 January 2016
USA: Police spied on sweatshop activists
Suspicions that police routinely infiltrate anti-sweatshop and other labour rights campaign organisations in the US, have been given added credence after an undercover Washington DC police officer was caught masquerading as a campaigner and undermining campaign activities.
In These Times • Democracy Now • Risks 618
17 August 2013
Britain: Private eye spied on sick worker
A tracking device was fitted secretly to a mum’s car by private investigators brought in by West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service to discover whether she was moonlighting while on sick leave from her job as a 999 call handler. FBU member Anthea Orchard, 35, said she and her family were horrified when she discovered the device.
Yorkshire Post • Telegraph and Argus • BBC News Online • Risks 617
10 August 2013
Britain: ‘Punitive’ lesson observations target the sick
Teachers in Wales say they are being subjected to ‘punitive’ monitoring and surveillance practices in their classrooms, teaching union NASUWT had said. Online survey responses from over 1,000 members indicated sick workers were being targeted for extra scrutiny.
NASUWT news release and classroom observation survey • Risks 571
1 September 2012
Britain: Employers can’t demand Facebook details
The Information Commissioner's Office has warned employers in the UK that it would have “very serious concerns” if they were to ask for Facebook login and password details from existing or would-be employees, following reports of such demands in the US.
There are indications sick workers in the UK could already have their Facebook and other social networking pages scrutinised by employers and insurers.
Facebook news release • The Guardian • The Telegraph • Risks 549
31 March 2012
Britain: Romec off track on tracking technology
Hundreds of CWU engineers working for Romec, the company that maintains premises for Royal Mail, Tesco and other major firms, have taken industrial action in a dispute over “misuse” of tracking technology to “harass and victimise” staff. Intrusive electronic surveillance at work has been linked to problems including increased stress, strain injuries and a drop in productivity.
CWU news release • Guidance for unions on safety and surveillance at work • Risks 508
4 June 2011
Britain: TUC guide to medical confidentiality
The TUC has published an online guide to confidentiality and medical reports. TUC says it “is important that employees know their rights to access to the information contained in any report” and provides guidance on good practice and on dealing effectively with any concerns raised.
TUC briefing document • Risk 435
5 December 2009
Britain: Job applicants face pavement drug tests
Jobseekers were subjected to “degrading” drug tests in a Scottish street by a top recruitment firm. People who were interviewed for 120 posts with Greenock-based cabling firm Sanmina were left astonished when some were escorted outside Greenock Jobcentre by staff from Pertemps for mouth swabs to be taken - as cars drove past and pedestrians walked by.
Greenock Telegraph • Sunday Post • The Sun • More on the ICO code on workers’ health information • Risks 428
17 October 2009
Trackers ‘drive employees over edge’
Employers are fitting out company vehicles
with invasive GPS tracking systems despite claims the technology unnecessarily
invades staff privacy and contributed to the suicide of a telecommunications
engineer last year. One such tracker, the GoFinder Reporter, sends
employers detailed daily time sheets showing every stop made, parked
time, driving time, distance covered, maximum speed and even an estimate
of the amount of fuel used.
Hazards news, 20 September 2008
Company films toilets on the job
The union UNITE has told a firm it must remove CCTV cameras after
they were discovered filming workers in the factory's toilet blocks.
ThyssenKrupp Automotive (TKA) Tallent Chassis, in Newton Aycliffe,
County Durham, was accused of a “horrendous breach of employee
Echo • Hazards workplace
privacy webpages and toilet
Hazards news, 25 August 2007
Workers living in fear under 'brutal' Amazon
Amazon workers are living in fear of heavy-handed
bosses, a Scottish employment expert has warned. Jim McCourt has spoken
out about the random body searches and ongoing drug tests he says
are commonplace in the factory which ships out books, CDs and DVDs
Telegraph • Hazards news and resources on workplace
drug tests and other
work privacy issues
Hazards news, 28 July 2007
Alarm sounds on mobile phone tracking
Campaigners have expressed concern about
the possible introduction of new technology that could allow employees
to be tracked by their bosses at any time and place during the working
Risks 269, 12 August 2006
Spy row over injured oil worker
A North Sea company has been criticised
for hiring a private detective to trail a worker while he was taking
sick leave after an injury at work. Ensco Services brought in an investigator
who put the worker, recuperating at home with a back injury, under
video surveillance – and also spied on his girlfriend.
Risks 245, 25 February 2006
GMB wants Europe to outlaw tagging at work
The GMB is calling on the European Commission
(EC) to outlaw the use of electronic tags to track workers. Reports
have linked oppressive workplace monitoring to a range of occupational
health problems, including musculoskeletal disorders and stress.
Risks 216, 23 July 2005
Workers “reduced to robots” by tags
Employees are being “dehumanised” by having
to wear electronic tags while working, general union GMB has said.
An increasing number working in retail distribution centres, which
supply goods to supermarkets, are having to wear tags, usually on
their wrists, to help speed up orders.
Risks 210, 11 June 2005
Code warning for employers on health information
Employers could be breaking the law if they
fail to respect workers' privacy on health issues. New guidance on
obtaining and handling information about workers' health published
by the Information Commissioner's Office puts strict limits on the
health information that can be obtained and says in most instances
alcohol, drug and genetic testing are an unwarranted intrusion.
Risks 187, 18 December 2004
Staff monitoring is on the increase
Office workers could face an explosion in workplace monitoring,
scrutiny and micro-management, according to a new report. Supply chain
technology developed for monitoring goods is now being applied to
individuals instead of products, warns research from the London School
of Economics (LSE).
Risks 185, 4 December 2004
Workplace cybersnoopers may need a permit
Some Australian employers may soon have to seek permission
from the Privacy Commission before spying on workers, testing them
for drugs or monitoring their use of email or the internet.
Risks 163, 3 July 2004
Spying software watches you work
Spyware has infected almost all companies polled for a survey
about web-using habits at work - although most employees are not aware
that Big Brother is watching them.
Risks 155, 8 May 2004
Call centre "Big Brother" health warning
Call centre workers are suffering anxiety and depression as a result
of "Big Brother" type monitoring of telephone calls and
emails. Call centre union UNISON found more than 70 per cent of respondents
to its survey suffered from related anxiety, 17 per cent from depression
and 52 per cent of call centre staff stated that they had considered
Risks 154, 1 May 2004
Union warning on psycho tests
Australia's top union body has warned against the use of psychometric
and other tests as supposed safety measures. ACTU has questioned the
motivation for psychometric, drug, alcohol and genetic testing at
work, saying personality issues are "a tiny factor" in occupational
health and safety.
Risks 149, 27 March 2004