Workplace surveillance ‘spiralling out of control’, says TUC

Trade union body pushes for workers to be consulted on the implementation of new technologies at work, warning that invasive surveillance practices are getting out of hand

The intrusive and increasing use of surveillance technology in the workplace  is “spiralling out of control”, and could lead to widespread discrimination, work intensification and unfair treatment without stronger regulation to protect workers, warns UK trade union body.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) said the deployment of various digital technologies to monitor workers activities took off after the onset of the pandemic, with employers seeking greater oversight of employees working remotely.

The digital monitoring tools available today – often powered by artificial intelligence (AI) – allow enterprises to see a range of information about their employees’ activities, from recording their keystrokes and mouse clicks to tracking their physical location and use of applications or websites.

While the use of employee monitoring tools was already ramping up before Covid-19 – a 2019 Accenture survey of C-suite executives, for example, found that 62% of enterprises were “using new technologies to collect data on their people and their work to gain more actionable insights” – the move to remote working has facilitated a further increase in their use.

In response to a survey conducted on behalf of TUC by Britain Thinks, some 60% of workers said they have been subject to some form of surveillance or monitoring by their employer, with three in 10 agreeing these practices had increased since the start of the pandemic. This marks an increase on the 53% who said they had been subject to workplace surveillance in 2020.

The TUC also found that, outside of workers in the gig economy, the financial services, wholesale and retails, and utilities sectors had the greatest proportion of workers reporting surveillance, at around three in four each.

“Employers are delegating serious decisions to algorithms – such as recruitment, promotions and, sometimes, even sackings,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

“Workers must be properly consulted on the use of AI and be protected from its punitive ways of working. It’s time for ministers to bring forward the long-awaited employment bill to give workers a right to disconnect and properly switch off outside of working hours.”

In response to the increasing use of intrusive workplace surveillance, the TUC is therefore calling for the government to introduce a statutory duty for employers to consult trade unions before they introduce any automated decision-making systems.

The TUC is also calling for a right to disconnect to be enshrined in an employment bill alongside digital rights to improve transparency, as well as a universal right to human review of high-risk automated decisions.

In response to the Britain Thinks survey, 82% of workers said they now support a legal requirement on employers to consult before introducing monitoring (compared to 75% in 2020); while 77% supported no monitoring outside of contracted work hours (compared to 72% in 2020).  

The union body added that it was worried about Article 22 protections in the General Data protection Regulation (GDPR) – which gives people “the right not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling” – being cut, thus creating a divergence from the European Union (EU).

In June 2021, the UK government’s Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) explicitly called for Article 22 protections to be cut. TIGRR’s proposal to cut these protections was included in a consultation held by the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in September 2021. Although the government is yet to formally respond, it is due to do so in spring 2022.  

In early February 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) jointly called for enterprises and governments to place clear limits on workplace surveillance and to support a right to disconnect, on the basis it would reduce the negative physical and mental health impacts of digitally enabled remote working practices.

A right to disconnect has significant support from workers and trade unions in the UK, and workers in Ireland have already had the right enshrined in an official code of practice since April 2021. The Scottish government also announced its support for similar measures in December 2021.

On 15 February 2022, specialist technology workers union Prospect published guidance for workers and other unions on how to approach employers when negotiating around workplace technology issues.

An essential aspect of the guidance was its emphasis on the need for collective bargaining agreements around the use of data and digital technologies, which will enable their use in the workplace to be effectively scrutinised and challenged.

These collective agreements around technology should, for example, enshrine a commitment from employers to consult, review and involve the union at all stages of introducing a new technology, as well as clear rights of redress for when things go wrong.

In November 2021, MPs and peers belonging to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Future of Work called for the creation of an Accountability for Algorithms Act (AAA) to deal with the lack of accountability and transparency over how employers operate their algorithmic systems.

Read more about workplace surveillance

  • The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has launched a consultation on the use of personal data by employers, including in workplace monitoring technologies, which will be used to update its existing Employment Practices guidance.
  • Gig economy workers are being surveilled, profiled and managed by their employers using ‘unfair and opaque’ algorithmic systems, and existing employment and data protection laws largely fail to protect them from digitally enabled abuses of their rights, a report has warned.
  • The United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW) union is campaigning to protect workers’ privacy and raise awareness about workplace monitoring practices. 

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