Labour calls for rules to restrict bosses spying on workers at home

Practices like letting AI take HR decisions could be discriminatory, opposition warns

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 18 January 2021 22:33 GMT

Workers need stronger protections against digital surveillance by bosses while they work from home, Labour has said.

The opposition is calling on the government "urgently" update guidance amid what they call a "sharp increase" in the use of remote surveillance by businesses.

Managers are increasingly using privacy-busting software following an increase in home working among office workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Labour says the new technological frontier needs better regulatory oversight to ensure workers are not monitored without their consent.

Workers are increasingly flagged and ranked by software based on metrics like how long it takes them to reply to emails and Zoom meeting attendance.

But the party cited research by the Trades Union Congress warning that such monitoring software risks increasing discrimination against disabled workers and people caring for children.

A survey by YouGov/Skillcast found that 12 per cent of all firms have implemented remote tracking software, with a higher prevalence of 16 per cent among larger companies.

Research by the TUC found thatone in seven workers believe that monitoring and surveillance at work has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some companies are thought to be making use of artificial metrics in deciding which staff to let go, and even using artificial intelligence (AI) to make the decisions.

Labour says the Code of Employment Practices issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office must be updated.

They also said all personal data collected through surveillance should be subject to a Data Protection Impact Assessment, and that employees and trade unions must be consulted on all measures.

“Guidance and regulation to protect workers are woefully outdated in light of the accelerated move to remote working and rapid advancements in technology," said Chi Onwurah, Labour’s shadow digital minister.

“The bottom line is that workers should not be digitally monitored without their informed consent, and there should be clear rules, rights and expectations for both businesses and workers.

“Ministers must urgently provide better regulatory oversight of online surveillance software to ensure people have the right to privacy whether in their workplace or home - which are increasingly one and the same.” 

Andrew Pakes, research director at the trade union Prospect, said: "Digital surveillance is just the tip of the iceberg for a new world of creepy tech that some employers are using to check up on their workforce.

"This technology is being introduced with no consultation with workers and often without even following the limited current rules around data privacy.

"We urgently need government to wake up to this issue, strengthen the rules governing this new technology and providing workers with clear and modern rights over how our data is used.”

A Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson said: "The UK has world leading data protection laws and strict rules around the digital monitoring of employees. The Information Commissioner has tough powers to investigate and fine companies which breach an employee's right to privacy."

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