LRD Booklets November 2015

Monitoring and surveillance at work - a practical guide for trade union reps



[pages 3-5]

Traditional forms of workplace monitoring are increasingly being supplemented by surveillance practices which utilise new forms of technology. The emergence of new technological devices means that the opportunity and temptation for employers to engage in either overt or covert surveillance of their staff continues to expand. 

These developments have taken a number of different forms, with employers using new technology to monitor production lines, track deliveries and call-outs, check responses to customer enquiries and monitor communications, and to ensure other organisational objectives have been undertaken. This is often justified in terms of maximising productivity, maintaining high customer service standards, or ensuring distribution and supply chains or other aspects of an organisation’s work are effectively managed. 

Previously, such activities may have been undertaken through manual checking and monitoring by supervisors, inspectors and managers. Much of this is not necessarily controversial, and some sort of workplace supervision is generally accepted. However, of increasing concern to workers and the trade unions that represent them is the way in which surveillance based on new technologies is being used as a means to monitor the activities and performance of staff. 

Rapid technological innovation has resulted in “function creep”, with technological features adopted for an accepted purpose, such as protecting driver safety or controlling product flow, taking on a wider and more intrusive function — for example, individual performance monitoring or regulating break start and finish times or unscheduled breaks — until every aspect of the worker’s day is monitored simply because the software allows the employer to do so. 

An example of this is the use of tracker devices in the cabs of delivery or service vehicles. While the original intention of employers in installing such devices may have been to keep track on when deliveries had been made or call-outs responded to, such trackers have also been used as “a spy in the cab” to keep tabs on the movement of the workers driving or travelling in the vehicles (see Chapter 3). 

Surveillance and monitoring in the workplace causes particular concerns for workers when the information obtained is used for disciplinary or performance management purposes, or for managers to take decisions that affect an employee’s terms and conditions or career development prospects. 

Major concerns have also been raised by the use of covert surveillance methods, for example, through hidden cameras or recording equipment. This can also be undertaken by software which tracks computer or internet usage and other activities, or through the use of mystery shoppers covertly monitoring or recording staff in the retail sector. 

Intense levels of surveillance in the workplace often comes alongside micro-management and automation of tasks, with workers expected to perform in an almost robotic manner. An example of this is seen in the warehouses of online retailer Amazon (see page 36).

This intense form of monitoring accompanied by micro-management is also often combined with a high level of casualisation, with workers on precarious contracts and highly vulnerable to losing their jobs if they deviate from instructions or perform too slowly. 

Such workers also operate in a climate of deskilling. The automated nature of the organisation minimises the amount of training needed, and makes workers easier to replace if they fail to meet the stringent targets set. 


High levels of employer control and monitoring, work intensification and task monotony are a recipe for work-related stress, especially when combined with target setting, job insecurity and, in customer-facing roles, a requirement to stay positive and “on-message”. 

The use of a variety of technological devices that allow employers to keep in contact with employees operating outside of the work premises can also create particular stresses. With this technology it is tempting for employers to feel that they can contact their staff at all hours, and employees may feel pressure to check messages or log-in remotely to the workplace server out of office hours. This can create a blurring between work and non-work boundaries which mean some workers feel that they are never away from the watchful eye of their employers. 

This blurring of boundaries also occurs when workers are using computer equipment or smart phones supplied by their employers for personal activities out of the workplace and outside of normal working hours. Even if such personal use is agreed with their employers, there is a strong possibility that their internet browsing, emails and other activity is being monitored. At the same time, the explosion of digital social networks, internet shopping and other web-based activities has led to more workers getting into trouble for engaging in these activities when at work, and using workplace computers in the same way as they might use their own personal computers at home. 

Both employers and workers need to set clear boundaries between work and personal life. Good workplace policies, incorporating both legal and good practice principles can help to do this.

The structure of the booklet

This booklet provides a guide to the new surveillance techniques operating in workplaces, the range of technology being used and the law governing the extent to which employers can monitor workers and regulate the treatment of workers’ personal data. It also covers recommended practice for trade union reps in ensuring that employers stay within the law, and in countering oppressive and intrusive forms of workforce surveillance and the misuse of monitoring data. 

The booklet is informed by a survey in 2015 of union reps on the LRD database, who were asked to provide information on any surveillance or monitoring systems operated by their employers, the type of technology used, union responses to the monitoring and details of any agreements or workplace policies governing this monitoring. This information was supplemented by discussions with and information provided by union officials covering workplaces where some form of monitoring system is in place.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the different forms of workplace monitoring and surveillance identified by union reps and officials, and the developments in technology enabling the growth of these techniques. It also provides a brief introduction to the key legal boundaries employers need to work within — notably the Data Protection Act (DPA) 1998 — and to the role of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in recommending good practice in workplace monitoring and data protection in general. The issue of surveillance of trade union activists and the scandal of blacklisting is also discussed.

Chapters 2 to 6 explore the different forms of workplace monitoring and surveillance in more detail, covering: CCTV and video and audio recording of workers; vehicle tracking; monitoring of individuals through hand held or wearable technology, biometrics and other tracking technology; call centre monitoring and mystery shoppers and; monitoring of electronic communications including phone calls, emails and internet use. These Chapters include examples of workplace practices and policies identified by reps, the often detrimental impact of these practices and union responses, and negotiated agreements and guidance provided by unions to counter pernicious forms of monitoring. Reference is also made to recommended good practice from the ICO and other bodies. 

Chapter 7 provides a more detailed examination of the law relating to workplace monitoring and surveillance, as well as ICO guidance to employers in implementing the law. Key legal cases which have interpreted and developed the law are also identified, and recommendations are provided for union reps in using the law and for ensuring that employers stay within its limits. Recent legislative developments relating to the surveillance powers of public authorities are also outlined. 

Chapter 8 draws on the best practice identified in the preceding Chapters and identifies key elements for negotiating a workplace policy on monitoring, and ensuring that employers respect the core data protection principles set out in law.