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Tech sector trade union campaigns to protect workers’ privacy

A UK-based trade union for technology workers and others employed by tech companies is organising around the issue of worker’s privacy and workplace monitoring

The United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW) union is campaigning to protect workers’ privacy and raise awareness about workplace monitoring practices.

Formed as a branch of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), UTAW was established to represent and fight for workers’ interests in the tech industry, which has historically seen very low rates of unionisation.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, UTAW spokesperson Marcus Storm said the idea of forming a union for tech workers and non-tech workers employed by tech companies was conceived in early 2020, but it has really come into being over the past six months.

“The founders felt that we didn’t have much of a voice as tech workers here [in the UK],” said Storm, adding that, overall, the experience of work for many in post-80s Britain has been one of precarity and diminishing collective power.

As a result, he said, the level of awareness around unions in the tech sector is still “very, very low”, something that UTAW is attempting to overcome through its employee surveillance campaign.

“Our first, most primary goal at this stage is to grow, because we want to give tech workers a chance to get professional help and support and be part of the community across the UK,” said Storm, adding that UTAW has released a 16-question survey online to get input from workers about their opinions and experience of workplace monitoring.

“A large part of the workforce has moved to working from home, and many workers have faced upheaval in the way they work,” says the survey webpage. “Employers have felt the pressing desire to keep tabs on their employees. As the boundary between working and private spaces becomes blurred, the potential intrusion of employee surveillance has become more concerning.

“Employee surveillance covers a wide range of tactics and tools used to monitor your activity, with the excuse of protecting a company’s interests. Examples include keyloggers, webcam and voice recording, or monitoring your network activity.

“Any way in which an employer can consistently and automatically gather information from employees counts as surveillance if the employer is legally able to read, share, and act upon that data.”

Storm said that although the campaign was not “against” workplace monitoring, per se – there are “positive instances of surveillance”, such as social distancing wearables in use by the likes of Amazon that “workers say helps you be more conscious of health and safety” – UTAW is concerned by applications of technology “being deployed or used in a way that takes away from the worker in some way”.

Giving the example of a call centre using remote monitoring software on employees’ laptops, Storm said the company – which was recording events such as keystrokes and time at desk through camera snapshots – told a female employee she was under-performing based on the data collected.

“This lady was on menopause, she had childcare duties due to Covid-19 and she had irregular hours,” said Storm. “She took them to court and won – because under the Data Protection Act [2018], you have to tell employees how you’re using their data. Such practices benefit neither the worker nor the company.

“We decided to focus on this [issue] because this is our natural turf, this is why sector-specific unions are pretty good – because we are more aware of it [as tech workers]. We are in a better place to come up with solutions.

“It’s a really symptomatic issue of the future of work. This is just the beginning of the types of issues that workers will face.”

Read more about unionisation in the tech sector

While UTAW is still waiting for more people to complete the survey before it formulates a concrete action plan, Storm said the union already has broadly desired outcomes that it wants to achieve with the campaign, such as raising awareness and pushing for better enforcement of the UK’s data protection laws.

He also insists that workers must be consulted and have a say on how workplace monitoring technologies are deployed.

“I think surveillance in general is best dealt with by worker voices – collective agreements on how surveillance is deployed [for example] would be a very good step up from the current situation where that is not required,” said Storm.

“If we go back to the Amazon warehouse example as well, the trouble with the Covid-social distancing devices is that, actually, if you break that three times, you just get fired – it’s not optional, it actually has an effect on your employment status.”

Once UTAW has collected enough information from the survey, the second phase of the campaign will be “raising awareness and collaborating with other workplace unions” to educate people about their rights and responsibilities at work, said Storm.

Philippa Collins, a lecturer in law at Bristol University who specialises in labour law, human rights and technology, has previously told Computer Weekly that human resources departments and other decision-makers should not take it for granted that deploying productivity monitoring is inherently a good thing.

“More data means more [legal] risks, but also potentially less trust,” she said. “People under surveillance are not happy people, so you’d be risking a mass exodus.”

Collins said that although she agrees employees should be consulted, both generally and as data subjects for data protection impact assessments, organisations cannot simply rely on employee consent as their legal basis for using the technology.

“It’s very clear that, because of the imbalance of bargaining power between workers and employers, an employer would not, as a data processor, be able to rely on the consent of their employees to process their data,” she said, adding that it is a common misconception that signing an employment contract automatically allows enterprises to process their workers’ data.

“If you’re that employer, you’re looking to be compliant, you’re looking to do this in a way that’s entirely legitimate,” said Collins. “Consultation would improve how you go about it – it would improve the logistics of it because you’d have employee buy-in, but you’d still want to be looking for another lawful basis to support your processing.”

Andrew Pakes, director of research and communications at Prospect Union, which represents science, tech and other specialist workers, has also said that putting “monitoring into the heart of our private lives in the name of work” raises questions about the power disparities between employers and employees, pointing out that increased work flexibility has to work for workers, not just employers.

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