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Big Brother is Watching You at Work and Even at Play

by Troy Henderson on December 20, 2018

There’s nothing unusual about employers monitoring their employees, in an age-old effort to extract maximum effort and productivity from their paid staff. But new technologies – such as CCTV cameras, GPS locator chips, and computer and social media monitoring – are making this monitoring cheaper, more extensive and more intrusive. The growing practice raises concerns about privacy and stress levels in workplaces. It may also help to explain why wages have been growing so sluggishly in Australia in recent years.

New survey research from the Centre for Future Work confirms that digital and surveillance systems are becoming commonplace throughout the Australian economy.

70% of working Australians reported their workplace uses one or more methods of electronic or digital surveillance. They reported an average of 3.2 different types of surveillance being used in each workplace.

Only 20% of respondents in work said their workplace did not use any form of digital or electronic surveillance, while another 10% did not know if electronic surveillance was being used in their workplace.

The most common forms of digital surveillance identified in the survey were employer monitoring of web browsing (43%), monitoring the contents of emails (38%), video cameras in workplaces (34%), and swipe cards or other digital methods of recording attendance (32%).

In many cases, the boss’s eye is even monitoring employees when they are away from the main place of work. 18% of workers reported facing digital surveillance by their employers outside of their workplace – in some cases even when they are not on active paid duty.

About one in ten Australian workers said they had been personally penalised or disciplined as a result of digital or electronic surveillance. This indicates that these technologies are being actively wielded by many employers as a tool of workforce discipline.

Some workers can even be effectively dismissed by electronic methods of supervision alone – such as ride-share drivers, for example, whose access to the ride-sharing app can be cancelled if they do not meet desired benchmarks of automatic customer ratings. This raises important issues of fair process: should individuals be at risk from losing their livelihoods purely on the basis of digital (rather than human) supervision, with no access to normal processes such as progressive discipline,representation, and adjudication?

Many ethical issues are raised by the widespread use of digital surveillance in Australian workplaces – and Australians agree that certain protections and standards should govern the use of these technologies. For example, an overwhelming majority of Australians surveyed (92%) believe that employers should notify employees when any form of surveillance is being used. And almost three-quarters (73%) think legal restrictions should limit how employers can use these technologies.

Over 70% of respondents believe these technologies reduce privacy for workers, and 60% believe they reduced trust between workers and employers. A majority of workers also believe that the use of electronic monitoring and surveillance reduces the quality or pleasure of work, while only a third believe these technologies actually make workers more efficient.

Omnipresent surveillance in workplaces may even be contributing to the slower wage growth which has so concerned Australian economists and policy experts in recent years. Because it is now easier and cheaper to monitor and discipline employees through electronic and digital surveillance systems, employers may feel less pressure to provide positive economic incentives (such as job security, promotion, and higher wages) to elicit loyalty and effort from their employees. When the “stick” has become cheap and omnipresent, employers feel less compulsion to offer their workers a better“carrot” – and hence wage increases are less common.

To be sure, modern electronic surveillance and monitoring methods can serve useful and constructive purposes in some circumstances. For example, hygiene and safety standards could be improved with digital oversight, electronic systems could prevent against theft and unauthorised entries, and workplace bullying and harassment might be discouraged. 

But the rapid advance and spread of digital surveillance systems in workplaces, and the potential for abuse of these technologies by employers, suggests an urgent need for a modern policy and legislative response. Some broad directions for reform seem obvious:

Firstly, Australia needs a more consistent and comprehensive legal framework governing the use of digital and electronic monitoring systems in workplaces. At present, only two jurisdictions – NSW and the ACT – have legislation that explicitly regulates the use of these technologies in workplaces, and even those laws are vague and incomplete. A comprehensive and standardised legislative framework to govern workplace surveillance should be developed for the whole country.

Second, workers’ privacy should be protected through limits on the location and times of workplace monitoring –including prohibition from sensitive locations (such as washrooms, changerooms, and lunch and break rooms).

Third, employees should not be subject to digital or electronic monitoring practices when they are not conducting directly compensated labour. And their digital activities while off the job should not generally subject them to punishment and sanction from their employers.

Fourth, the application of normal employment security rights and processes (including right to notice,representation, progressive discipline, and protection against unfair dismissal) must not be undermined through the use of digital monitoring systems. Workers in contingent, contractor, and “gig” positions should be protected by these same provisions, even if they are not considered “employees”under to traditional legal definitions. No-one should be subject to being fired by an app.

Finally, workers should be able to negotiate the terms of digital workplace monitoring and performance evaluation through the collective bargaining process. This will require more attention to these issues from both management and unions.

To prevent these new technologies from contributing to a dystopian work culture marked by omnipresent and punitive surveillance,and to ensure that ongoing technological change leads to rising living standards rather than just more intense and stressful work lives, these issues should be placed squarely on Australia’s labour policy agenda.

The full report, Under the Employer’s Eye: Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance in Australian Workplaces, by Troy Henderson,Tom Swann and Jim Stanford, is available from the Centre for Future Work.

Troy Henderson
Troy Henderson is an economist with a particular interest in the past, present and future of work in Australia. He received a Bachelor of Economics and Social Sciences and a Master of Arts (Research) in Political Economy from the University of Sydney. He is completing his PhD in 2019. His Masters research focused on The Four-Day Workweek as a Policy Option for Australia, while his PhD thesis explores Basic Income as a Policy Option for Australia. He has published academic articles and book chapters on these and other work-related topics, and has undertaken economic consulting work for Public Services International. He has presented at national and international conferences, and is a regular media commentator. He is passionate about fair work, social justice, cricket and the NBA. Twitter: @TroyCHenderson

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