Labour Research April 2020


Big Brother is in the workplace

Technological change is increasingly enabling employers to monitor workers, with workplace surveillance becoming more and more intrusive.

Barclays bank recently faced criticism for piloting computer monitoring software to track the time employees spent at their desks and send warnings to those taking long breaks. 

The story, which hit the headlines at the end of February, will have come as no surprise to trade unions. 

They have long been warning that despite laws to protect privacy and restrict the use of personal data, technological change is increasingly allowing employers to monitor workers, and workplace monitoring and surveillance is becoming ever more intrusive. 

In its 2018 report on workplace monitoring, I’ll be watching you, the TUC says the union movement has been fighting the changing face of workplace surveillance for years. In 1998, for example, Michael Ford QC, a barrister specialising in labour law, warned: “Surveillance is almost as old as work itself, but new techniques represent a growing threat of a different kind to workers and unions.” 

When workplace monitoring is justified and used fairly, says the TUC, it can protect health and safety and improve business practices. 

Retail union Usdaw, for example, is broadly in favour of the introduction of CCTV and, more recently, body-worn cameras, because its members face a high risk of violence, threats and abuse from the public. 

But it also recognises there are issues around the invasive nature of surveillance of workers. And the TUC says that when used badly or inappropriately it becomes symptomatic of an employer’s lack of trust in staff. This in turn demoralises workers and can make them miserable. 

Extreme levels of surveillance and monitoring

Unfortunately, recent union research suggests employers are monitoring workers badly and inappropriately, with new technologies allowing ever more invasive scrutiny.

A June 2019 report by the Commission on Workers and Technology (CWT), a joint initiative from the Community trade union and the Fabian Society think tank studying the impact of technological change in the workplace, found examples of oppressive monitoring. 

It warned that some employers are using new technology “to implement extreme levels of workforce surveillance and monitoring”. 

It gave the example of online retail giant Amazon patenting wristbands that track warehouse pickers’ hand movements and vibrate to point their hands in the direction of the correct items. 

The CWT heard evidence from James Bloodworth, journalist and author of Hired: six months undercover in low-wage Britain, who worked undercover in an Amazon warehouse. 

He had to carry around a device at all times that tracked where he was, whether an item had been scanned, and whether he was going to the toilet, for example. 

It also reported that online taxi platform Uber monitors drivers via customer feedback and deactivates their profiles if they drop below a particular customer rating and do not improve over a period of time.

Recent research for the TUC looking at automation and gender heard from women workers in industries that have experienced a significant amount of automation. It found increased surveillance was a problem in automated warehouses across the country, and not just in Amazon (see Labour Research, March 2020, pages 16-18).

“Workers are so closely monitored and under so much control they are treated as machines not human beings,” TUC policy officer Sian Elliott told Labour Research. “There is constant supervision, workers are expected to pick quicker, and there are terminals to monitor them so managers can just sit and watch and put workers into performance management if they don’t work fast enough.”

In one example, pickers at a supermarket warehouse were ranked and their number put up on a performance ladder board if they were in the bottom 10 performers — a practice challenged by their union reps.

Activists at a recent conference on undercover policing and trade unions heard about examples of extreme workplace surveillance and a “revolving door” between state security services and private corporations (see box this page). 

Surveillance of trade unionists

At a conference last year on undercover policing and unions at London’s University of Greenwich (see Labour Research, January 2020, pages 10-12), Phil Chamberlain, co-author of Blacklisted: the secret war between big business and union activists, told the attendees how the surveillance of trade unionists is being “outsourced”. 

Last summer, he and fellow journalist Rob Evans, author of Undercover: the true story of Britain’s secret police, revealed in The Guardian newspaper that senior managers at the Crossrail publicly-funded rail project had hired a corporate security company to monitor trade unionists. 

They paid the firm, Control Risks, £59,000 over three years to monitor trade unionists campaigning against blacklisting in the construction industry. 

Chamberlain also described a “revolving door” between state security and the private sector, with several former police officers moving into the private security industry. 

He pointed to the very successful union and Blacklist Support Group campaign calling for construction companies who had blacklisted trade unionists (and prevented them from working in the industry) to “own up, clean up and pay up” before being allowed to bid for publicly-funded building projects. 

“Why not have the same approach to employing spy cops in the public sector?” he asked.

And new research by the Prospect specialists’ union found nearly half of workers (48%) were not confident they knew what data their employer collected about them. In the survey of more than 7,500 workers, more than a third (34%) were not confident this data would be used in an appropriate way. 

In its February 2020 report, Future of work: employers’ collection and use of worker data, Prospect says the growing role of new technologies in workplaces means that employers are accumulating rapidly increasing amounts of data on their employees.

This includes location tracking and vehicle telematics, keystroke and computer use monitoring, audio recording and automated monitoring systems, CCTV or workplace sensors, facial recognition or “coding” software, wearable devices such as FitBits, as well as social media and other sources of open data. It says unions and workers are right to be concerned about how this data is being used.

“For example, workers at call centres can now be monitored by software that uses algorithms to assess their tone, mood and success in pleasing customers,” it reports. “UNI Global [the international union federation] has reported a case where these were then used in appraisals, despite being inaccurate and discriminatory.” 

This “datafication” of work is deeply worrying, according to Prospect research director Andrew Pakes. He says a lot of the worst practices originate in the the United States but are creeping into the UK. 

“There is a lot of discussion about whether our jobs will be replaced by robots. But there is a danger we’re going to be turned into robots, monitored to the nth degree, and will lose all autonomy,” he told Labour Research. 

While the General Data Protection Regulation provides some legal protection (see box top of page 15), he says its primary focus is on the individual rights and personal privacy of citizens — as is government policy and the general public discourse. 

Law on monitoring and surveillance at work

The Human Rights Act 1998, Article 8, provides individuals with the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence. This includes personal privacy within the workplace, which must be balanced against legitimate business interests. The Act is mostly used to challenge the intrusive behaviour of public bodies or governments. 

The General Data Protection Regulation governs the use and processing of personal data and is enforced by the Information Commissioner’s Office. Personal data is any information about a living individual which enables them to be identified. 

There are six lawful bases for processing personal data. Everything an employer does with personal data must fall under one of these or it is unlawful and must stop:

• consent: the individual has given clear consent for the employer to process their personal data for a specific purpose; 

• contract: the processing is necessary for a contract they have with the individual, or because they have asked the individual to take specific steps before entering into a contract;

• legal obligation: the processing is necessary for the employer to comply with the law (not including contractual obligations);

• vital interests: the processing is necessary to protect someone’s life, or in some cases property; 

• public task: the processing is necessary for the employer to perform a task in the public interest or for their official functions, and the task or function has a clear basis in law; and

• legitimate interests: the processing is necessary for the employer’s legitimate interests or the legitimate interests of a third party unless there is a good reason to protect the individual’s personal data which overrides those legitimate interests.

Anyone is entitled to see the data an organisation holds on them under the right to subject access. Workers can request the data held on them by their employer and they have a legal duty to provide it. Individuals have the right to have their data deleted if it is no longer needed. 

Source: Bargaining on monitoring and surveillance workplace policies, UNISON (updated May 2019)

“We don’t talk about workers and data enough — it’s kind of a blind spot in governance and government policy,” he said. “For all the focus on individual data privacy, little attention has been paid to data rights at work and the fast-moving frontier of workplace technologies.

“Just compare the justified scale of concern on facial recognition in public places, to the near silence on how monitoring or surveillance is applied at work.”

In the work relationship there is an “asymmetry of power” in the contractual relationship between employers and employees.

“We may tick boxes about our information when we buy from Argos as a company, but that’s different to ‘choices’ employers give us,” he added. “Personal privacy doesn’t necessarily apply to collective rights. 

“Prospect’s survey shows workers don’t quite know — and the union thinks employers are also not sure about — what they are collecting.”

Legal right to consultation

The TUC has called for trade unions to have a legal right to be consulted on, and to agree in advance to, the use of electronic monitoring and surveillance at work, and several unions have provided negotiating guidance for their reps.

Public services union UNISON’s bargaining guide on workplace policies on monitoring and surveillance reports: “Without a doubt, there is increased surveillance, tracking of activity and automation at work, often without a clear and reasoned justification given by the employer.” 

It explains the reasons why reps should negotiate on this issue, including serious concerns around personal privacy and fears that information accumulated by employers can be misused. UNISON branches are also reporting that more evidence is being used in disciplinary cases. 

The guide sets out the law in this area (see box above); the different types of monitoring and surveillance commonly used in workplaces; advice on developing a case to put to employers; and provides an example policy covering monitoring and surveillance in the workplace for branches and reps.

Campaigning by the GMB general union has included highlighting the impact of invasive monitoring and surveillance on stress levels and productivity at online fashion retailer ASOS. 

The union says unjustified surveillance by employers is usually a symptom of wider abuse and exploitation in the workplace and has also campaigned on hidden cameras in care homes and the care sector. 

Its members helped shape the Care Quality Commission guidance to the care sector. The union also provides a model monitoring and surveillance agreement.

One innovative union response to workplace monitoring is UNI Global’s development of a workers’ version of an activity tracker called Spotlight which launches and will be downloadable this month. The international trade union federation describes it as “our privacy respecting, worker empowering tool” (see box below). 

‘Spotlight’ — a worker’s tracker

The Young Workers Lab team at international trade union federation UNI Global, which represents more than 20 million workers worldwide in a range of sectors, has developed a new tracker for workers, similar to fitness trackers, called “Spotlight”. It will be publicly available as an opensource app this month.

“What’s so different about Spotlight is that the data is entirely the user’s,” UNI Global explains. “No third party data snooping, no hidden surveillance of you. You set the app to monitor what you want it to: your commute time, whether you are working whilst commuting, keep a log of working conditions, your wellbeing, keep track of screen time, distances travelled, whether you sit down too much — or too little.”

Unions in Germany, New Zealand and the UK have been testing Spotlight. In New Zealand, for example, care workers have been testing how it can help to build an evidence base to show they are actually travelling much more between clients than they are being paid for, and effectively subsidising employers.  

It aims to level up the balance of power with employers and help unions challenge issues including work creeping into private lives and “the ‘always-on’ culture” that “never lets us switch off from work”. 

Information about Spotlight is at

Stronger regulation

Pakes says surveillance and monitoring is at “the frontline of workers’ rights” and needs much stronger regulation. Transparency throughout the whole data life cycle is important, he says. 

Employers should be required to tell workers what data is being collected, how is it being analysed, how and where is it being stored — which will become increasingly important post-Brexit — and whether they are selling and making money out of the data.

Prospect thinks that, like tax and income, there should be a P60 for data, and employers should be forced to explain what data is being collected, what third party software is being used, if it is being given to third parties and when it will be deleted.

“We need to raise the bar on transparency about data systems being introduced and whether employees are involved,” said Pakes.

If 20th century legislation was about the relationship between people and their managers and employers, “this century, there needs to be a set of regulations to govern people and their data and information”. 

Pakes added: “GDPR is not adequate in terms of recognising workplace rights of workers versus technology and engagement of employers. It is a huge issue that unions have to get to grips with.”