Big brother is seriously damaging your health

A new report by the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) claims that modern methods of workplace surveillance have become so intrusive that they are affecting workers' health.

Phone-tapping, the interception of e-mail and the use of computers to count individual key strokes are now common practice among some of Britain's biggest employers. Used in conjunction with psychological assessment, drug testing, and in some cases, even genetic screening, workplace surveillance, argues the report, is causing depression, an increase in sick leave and repetitive strain injury.

"It's the fat controller in the workplace gone mad," says Carolyn Jones, director of the IER. "Nobody minds CCTV if it's there to protect workers from abuse or assault but nobody wants cameras in the staff toilets either." One of the growing areas of surveillance is the monitoring of workers in insurance and banking call centres where hundreds of employees are seated in rows to answer enquiries from the public. Employers will listen in to check scripts are being followed correctly or that time isn't being wasted in non-sales-orientated conversations.

In a recent court case BT's monitoring of workers at its data processing unit came under judicial scrutiny. The court learnt that the seating arrangements, with senior supervisors sitting at the end of long rows of workers, was something akin to George Orwell's 1984. But more seriously for the workers' health, each typist was expected to attain a minimum of 10,000 keystrokes an hour. BT invested a great deal of time monitoring and recording each typist's keystroke rate. Pay was linked to the hourly keystroke rate with the fastest typists receiving the highest pay. In this kind of pressurised environment, says Jones, it's easy to see how repetitive strain injury can be a problem.

The report's author, Michael Ford, comments: "The health and safety of consequences of monotonous, tightly-regulated tasks involving a loss of autonomy are more and more clear. For others persistent surveillance leads to a sense of insecurity, loss of trust, feelings of inhibition or discontent."

The report, which collected information from its trade union members and other organisations interested in workers' rights, showed that as much as 8 per cent of companies now use drug testing.

Jones says there is evidence that HIV/Aids screening and sexual orientation testing is becoming more popular among employers. Although much of this testing is in its infancy, the IER says it is to the American experience where we should look to see where extensive testing of the workforce might lead. Nevertheless, bosses in this country are still pressing ahead with genetic testing programmes because of the need to protect pension funds from early pay-outs to workers who are more likely to leave work through ill-health. Jones says this kind of testing takes no account of the environmental factors in diseases like cancer and asthma.

Some unions had hoped that the right to privacy enshrined in the new Human Rights Act 1998 would offer protection to workers who feel they are being unfairly monitored. The IER report argues that although it might be possible to challenge some techniques it is too limited in scope to address the myriad ways employers have found to police workforces. The type of workplace in which techniques are employed is also a vital factor: CCTV may be desirable for train workers as a protection against assault but resented in call-centres.

IER is now calling for changes in the law so that employers considering introducing surveillance at work should at least be under a duty to inform the workforce what they are proposing.

`Surveillance and privacy at work' by Michael Ford is available from the Institute of Employment Rights, 177 Abbeville Road, London SW4 9RL.

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