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Employee Surveillance in the Workplace

'But who watches the watchmen?'

Juvenal

How do you fill those spare minutes you occasionally have when you're at work? Phone a friend? Surf the web? Go and read the newspaper in the toilet for half an hour? Whatever you do, you may be surprised to find that you're not the only person who knows about it. Even worse, you could lose your job over it.

In the call centre sector, where up to 250,000 people will be working by the end of this year (according to the industries regulatory body, the CCA), there is concern that the level of telephone monitoring is an invasion of employee privacy. While bosses may argue that workers are only there to do the job, others claim that it is just another step towards a Big Brother forcing his way into the country's workplaces.

In the battle for increased efficiency and productivity, companies are desperately trying to ensure that every minute spent in the office is used for profitable company work. Most banks already record telephone conversations for security reasons, but the information they gather can also be used for more sinister purposes. But it isn't just telephone calls that bosses are keeping their eye on.

Digital surveillance

A report by the American Management Association discovered that forty per cent of companies in the US keep tabs on their employees by checking e-mail, voice mail, telephone conversations and computer keystrokes, even using hidden cameras to monitor staff during the day. In many cases, the information gathered isn't considered confidential, and details are routinely passed to credit agencies and government departments. It is understandable that employers want to prevent such things as theft and legal liability for employees actions, but how far should this type of surveillance go?

It is already illegal in Germany for companies to watch staff and listen to them at the same time, but in most countries there are no privacy laws protecting citizens while they are at work. One percent of American companies already carry out genetic testing of employees (a figure sure to rise as costs falls) and routine drug testing is becoming common practice in offices all over the western world.

Hidden microphones

Not all workers are aware that they are being watched. British Petroleum faced criticism after hidden microphones, used to record conversations of both staff and customers, were discovered in their service stations. This practice remained secret until a refit of a station in Scotland revealed the devices. One employee, who preferred not to be named, said: "The public have a right to know if their privacy is being invaded."

In its defence, the company argued that recordings made during armed robberies could help to convict dangerous criminals. However, perhaps if this measure had been used as a public deterrent, robberies would be even less likely?

Stress and reduced productivity

In August last year, the British government warned companies that the monitoring of telephone conversations made at work contravened the European Convention of Human Rights. This came six months after the Institute of Employment Rights published a report that revealed the range of surveillance techniques being used by companies. Some firms even went as far as installing infra red detectors to covertly monitor staff movements. The report also suggested that increased surveillance could lead to reduced productivity. It claimed that these techniques bring about an overall increase in stress levels, reducing the ability of staff to organise their work properly.

John Wadham, head of the action group Liberty, told the BBC recently: "Clear and strict rules should be placed on what employers are legally entitled to do." As yet, these rules are still not in place nor are they being seriously discussed.

Human rights and the right to privacy

Privacy is a contentious issue in the UK. There is no legal right to it in the office or in the home. Private companies can really do as they please in this respect. If it means that staff are afraid of taking their complaints to unions in case of repercussions, then all the better for their employers. Agencies such as Oftel (The Office of Telecommunications) who advise that companies provide staff with completely private, unmonitored telephone calls, cannot enforce their recommendations.

Until Great Britain joins the European Convention of Human Rights later this year, there is little that individuals can do to protect their privacy. Some American states are starting to introduce their own rules, outlawing drug tests, polygraph lie detection and preventing individuals from having their e-mails and telephone conversations checked. But these are only the first actions to be taken against Big Brother's influence in the office. Don't expect to see any solutions for at least a few years.