Get Big Brother out of the workplace

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Illustration: CNN

Three years ago an unlikely group rebelled over monitoring in their workplace. Federal judges working at the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco expressed their outrage about the loss of privacy resulting from the introduction of computer monitoring. They disabled the software installed by the Administrative Office of the Courts, arguing that the monitoring was both illegal and unethical. But for the majority of workers, switching off the monitoring devices is not an immediate option, because they are not yet sufficiently organised.

Advances in monitoring technology have resulted in an epidemic of workplace spying and, in most parts of the world, there are very few controls in place. The monitoring of e-mail and internet use in Australia is widespread. Around 76% of employers monitor e-mail, 65% doing it without telling workers. A survey by Pricewaterhouse Coopers found that more than one-third of Australian employers use visible cameras to film staff, while a further 10% use hidden cameras. Fifteen percent of bosses monitor workers’ conversations.

Monitoring is also on the rise in other parts of the world. However, the Privacy Committee of New South Wales found Australians were one of the highest per capita spenders on video surveillance in the world.

Big bucks from spying. Staff surveillance technology is a massive growth area. One example is the fitting of Global Positioning System (GPS) phone software into mobile phones. Nextel began marketing GPS software in November 2002 and is adding 200 new customers a month. This once-expensive technology, which enables companies to track off-site employees’ every move, is now affordable due to the widespread use of mobile phones. SiRF Technology, which provides the GPS components for Motorola handsets, has seen its revenue jump from $15 million in 2001 to $73.1 million in 2003.

TrueActive, a U.S. computer company with expanding markets in Europe, claims in its sales pitch that “every computer keystroke — from e-mail messages, deleted passages and instant message conversations — can be tracked and organised into daily reports.” It can also be configured to search for keywords like the names of competitors or phrases like “I hate my boss.”

Monitoring technology is increasingly sophisticated, affordable and profitable. The global market for e-mail and internet data traffic-snooping technology was expected to reach a massive $1.8 billion by the end of 2004.

White collar sweatshops. Surveillance in some workplaces now resembles the reality TV show Big Brother, but instead of prizes, there is workload intensification, negative health impacts and degradation. The telephone call centre industry now employs more than 350,000 Australian workers. The Victorian Law Reform Commission baldly states that “call centres represent an extreme position in relation to monitoring and surveillance.” Data-gathering  technology controls and monitors call centre workers, measuring every part of the work process. Data is then turned into individual and team reports comparing the performance of workers against regularly increasing key performance indicators. This data is used to coerce employees into even more intensification of work.

As a Marxist working in the call centre industry, I observe first hand how the trends identified by Karl Marx in Capital — his classic study analysing how the capitalist system works — are panning out in the 21st century. Profit maximisation is its Number One priority. This requires detailed cost calculations for every transaction. Call centres are based on constantly reorganising processes to drive down costs.

Even when “human elements” are considered as a part of the management equation, it’s only in terms of reducing costs. Call centres consider the cost of staff attrition, the cost of absenteeism, the cost of workplace injury, the cost of low staff morale and so on.

A survey by the Australian Services Union (ASU) found that 88% of call centre workers experience stress because of their work. This is hardly surprising. The call centre industry uses monitoring technology to increase the intensity of work to the highest level possible, while attempting to minimise the impact on profits of worker burnout and breakdown. The job of the call centre manager is to maximise profits by getting this balance right. The union movement may have some success in ameliorating some of the stressors, but only because stress-related problems are currently costing the call centre industry millions.

Employers frequently argue that the introduction of invasive monitoring practices are necessary on health and safety grounds. But there is a wealth of scientific evidence that electronic surveillance is bad for workers’ health. The International Labour Organisation concludes that this type of monitoring has negative health impacts. The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has also reached similar conclusions. One NIOSH study found that a group of electronically monitored data entry clerks experienced psychological distress and physical discomfort. They reported feelings of irritation, work dissatisfaction, intense time pressure and hand and neck pains.

It’s all about control. While speed-ups are the main use for workplace monitoring devices, another  key application is to control workers’ lives, both on and off the job, and to limit the ability to organise. Bosses using devices such as psychometric testing to screen out certain “personality types” and genetic testing to identify predisposition to certain conditions is also on the rise.

In the 19th century, women teachers were required to uphold restrictive morality standards imposed by the boss. Attempts by employers — especially religious organisations and the public service — to monitor and restrict workers’ private activities are making an unwelcome comeback.

Earlier this year the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) took the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations to the Industrial Relations Commission after the department demanded that staff obtain prior permission to hand out how-to-vote cards during the Federal election. The CPSU won the case by arguing that workers have a right to a private life and this is none of management’s business. The CPSU is also resisting attempts by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to force all workers to register their political affiliations with the ABC.

The right of unionists to use workplace e-mail systems is a key issue linked to monitoring. In 2000, Maria Gencarelli, an ASU delegate at Ansett, won a precedent-setting unfair dismissal case in the Federal Court. Gencarelli was sacked after using the Ansett e-mail system to distribute a union bulletin to members during enterprise bargaining negotiations. The outcome in Gencarelli’s case entrenches the principle that the use of employer e-mail systems during enterprise bargaining periods is part of the business of the employer and is therefore “legitimate.”

But what about during other periods? And what about for other types of organising? The intensive levels of e-mail monitoring enable employers to spy on union communications and also to impose restrictive limits on what unionists can discuss in e-mails. Both the Australian Tax Office (ATO) and Centrelink have restrictive e-mail usage policies designed to frustrate union organising. Workers within Centrelink are banned from circulating material which is of a political nature, or which advocates industrial action.  

In July 2003 the NSW Department of Education blocked teachers from using e-mail during a stopwork meeting in order to prevent unionists sending messages to Members of Parliament in support of their pay claim.  

Without the right to privacy — both on and off the job — the bosses control workers, body and soul. Without privacy, workers cannot think or speak freely, nor organise to change the oppressive conditions of their lives. We urgently need big brother out of the workplace!

Piecemeal laws. Existing Commonwealth and State laws in relation to workplace privacy are hopelessly inadequate. The Commonwealth Privacy Act focuses on personal information and gives only indirect protection to workers. It does not apply to small business, and employee records are excluded.

In NSW, the Workplace Video Surveillance Act provides some protection, and the state has recently become the first to put limits on employers’ ability to spy on workers’ e-mail. However, in Victoria the Surveillances Devices Act is of limited value, as most workplace activities would not fit the definition of “private.”

Equal Opportunity legislation may cover some breaches of privacy, and Occupation Health and Safety may provide some protection where the invasion of privacy in the workplace is so extreme as to cause psychological injury.

Reform options. The Victorian Law Reform Commission released its Workplace Privacy Options paper last September. It contains two possible models. The first option would require employers to seek authorisation from a regulator before being able to undertake a particular surveillance, monitoring or testing practice in the workplace. The second option is based upon compliance with a set of privacy principles. It is an essentially self-regulatory system.

The union movement needs to mobilise grassroots support for the first option which starts with the presumption of privacy. Winning legislation which prevents bosses from engaging in unfettered workplace spying will give workers a valuable organising tool and provide legislative weight to the concept of privacy at work.

Let’s win privacy in our workplaces. Winning strong workplace privacy legislation will highlight the dangers of workplace snooping and help blunt the enthusiasm of some of the worst abusers. However, we need to win the argument, in workplaces across the country, that workers have a right to privacy.

Many current enterprise bargaining agreements include clauses which consent to workplace surveillance and monitoring. The agreement between the National Union of Workers and The Nuance Group allows for locker searches to be carried out and specifies that workers are expected to cooperate with routine bag inspections. The agreement between Kodak and a number of unions permits security video cameras at agreed locations. The agreement between the CPSU and Centrelink includes announced listening of calls in Centrelink Call Centres. In contrast, some other agreements contain strong privacy clauses — such as Maroondah City Council’ which prohibits routine e-mail monitoring. The ATO agreement of 2001 disallows the use of systems to measure keystrokes made by an individual in a given period.

We need to challenge the normalisation of workplace monitoring by showing that it is all about control and is all one way. When workers have attempted to monitor the activities of the boss, they’ve been promptly dismissed. Former insurance claims manager turned whistleblower, Larry Lee Ropp, has even been indicted after he installed a Key Katcher monitoring device on a computer used by the secretary to the company vice president. Ropp was attempting to gather information in connection with a class action suit against the firm.

Ultimately, the solution to winning workplace privacy is do what workers did at a Sydney childcare centre in 2001. When they found a voice-activated tape recorder fixed under a cot, they went on strike. That’s inspirational, and it is how we’ll get big brother out of the workplace for good.

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