Peter Pringle's America: Under the eye of nosey bosses

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The Independent Online
IS THE American workplace the world's largest electronic sweatshop? Are workers being browbeaten into higher efficiency by employers who regularly cross the blurred line between management's right to know and a worker's right to privacy?

The answer has come back loud and clear from the United Nations' International Labour Organization. It found that American workers are subjected to a higher level of audio, video and computer surveillance than any other nation - the all-American boss has become a peeping Tom.

In one way this is not surprising. American espionage technology is the best, and most of it has been available on the open market for years. In a country that prided itself during the Cold War on being able to read the number plates of Soviet Central Committee cars from satellites several miles up, and being able to eavesdrop on coded Soviet phone conversations, it would be strange if corporate executives did not adapt these spy toys to their own advantage.

Some went too far, of course. Famous cases that came to court include the doughnut shop in which the employer taped worker-customer chit-chat, a Boston hotel that installed a hidden camera in the staff dressing room and a retail chain that hired private detectives to monitor workers' drinking habits and emotional problems. What is odd, in a country that also prides itself on privacy as a fundamental right, is that Congress is taking so long to protect its citizens from unreasonable snooping at work.

Europe is far ahead of America in new legislation to cope with such management abuses. Italy, Norway and Sweden have restrictions on workplace monitoring. Germany has the most comprehensive law, limiting employer monitoring to areas agreed in advance by workers. The US Congress, meanwhile, is considering a Bill that would require employers to tell workers when they

are being filmed or recorded, guarantee an employee's access to the data produced and limit its disclosure. However, the legislation is so strongly opposed by manufacturing associations that it has been stalled for three years.

Americans are well aware that Big Brother is probably watching. Government studies have estimated that as many as 26 million workers may be regularly under surveillance. When asked in a 1991 nationwide poll whether employers should be allowed to listen in on employee phone calls, 95 per cent said no. Asked whether hidden cameras should be allowed to scan employee work areas, 56 per cent said no.

Nevertheless, building a consensus on privacy is not easy, even though the country has a tell-all mentality. The immense popularity of TV talk shows indicates how fascinated Americans are with hearing others bare their souls in public. But whatever they bare in private may be a different matter altogether.

You see, Americans just love their gimmicks. They are intrigued by the wonders of new technology for snooping - a hidden camera the size of a marble that gives tabloid TV a chance to intrude on private lives in a way never seen before, seems perfectly acceptable, as long as you are one of the tens of millions watching and not on the screen. Bugging a workers' changing room, or placing a tap on a phone line or computer program that eavesdrops on personal E-mail is also tolerable, apparently. The protestors are small in number and, so far, have proved ineffectual.

In 1989 an organisation called 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, set up a computer hotline for victims of boss espionage. They began to collect cases. One woman from New Jersey, who worked as a flight reservations agent, complained that her supervisor disciplined workers who took more than a total of 28 seconds a day to switch from one caller to the next, or who spent more than 12 minutes a day away from their computer for going to the toilet and other needs.

Phone operators - who are mostly women - are also under constant watch for allowing their voices to sound too sexy, or allowing themselves to be chatted up by customers. A 1990 study of telecommunications workers by the University of Wisconsin found employees who knew they were being bugged also suffered from extreme anxiety and exhaustion.

It might help Americans to look across their border to the north. In Canada, a civilised state in many ways, the telephone company has identified its eavesdropping and strict time-watching as a principal cause of stress among operators. Many of them, in order to keep within company time limits, would even give out made-up telephone numbers on directory inquiries calls because it was quicker than looking up the real one. The Canadians solved the problem by ending the practice of spying on individuals and instead averaging the score for time between calls for entire offices. That way no one feels victimised, and team work was encouraged.

The real point is that if the FBI has to go to court to obtain a search warrant to bug criminals, it's unfair and unreasonable that the boss only has to go to a high- tech store to bug his employees.