World Employment Report 2001

Negotiating the new economy: The effect of ICT on industrial relations

8. Widening the negotiating agenda: Electronic surveillance and privacy

The monitoring of email or internet usage is, however, only one aspect of a wider issue of individual privacy in an increasingly digitised workplace.

Information and communication technology, and in particular the facility to effortlessly record and store enormous quantities of digitised data, offers considerable opportunities for electronic surveillance.

According to one author, the technology used to monitor employees can extend to every aspect of a worker’s life: "Miniature cameras monitor behaviour. ‘Smart’ ID badges track an employee’s movement around a building. Telephone Management Systems (TMS) analyse the patterns of telephone use and the destinations of calls. Psychological tests, general intelligence tests, aptitude tests, performance tests, vocational interest tests, personality tests and honesty tests – many of which are electronically assessed – raise a great many issues of privacy, control and fairness."98

An employer can monitor productivity levels by recording the number of keystroke depressions made by a wordprocessing employee. For example, one US firm undertaking ‘offshore’ data processing in Barbados has reported that the employees there average 13,000 keystrokes an hour, at 99.98% accuracy.99 Because of the stress involved, it has been argued that keyboard monitoring is more likely to lead to musculo-skeletal disorders such as repetitive strain injury.

The issue of monitoring and recording of telephone conversations has arisen in the context of call centre work. In general, standard call centre technology allows supervisors the ability to know which of their staff are currently handling calls, who is waiting for a call, and who is taking a break. This electronic monitoring is also possible in the case of staff working remotely, for example from their own homes. Supervisors are also likely to have the facility to listen in secretly to conversations taking place. The recording of these telephone conversations may also be automatic.

The legal position regarding these practices varies between countries. However, the increasing use of call centres for making financial transactions or ordering goods means that there is a growing tendency to maintain records of telephone conversations for security and auditing purposes.

The GPA union in Austria has proposed that monitoring is strictly controlled, offering the following code of practice:

  • Monitoring is only undertaken for training purposes.
  • The process gives staff greater confidence in the way they handle conversations.
  • Monitoring is agreed in advance with the members of staff affected.
  • Monitoring is undertaken from nearby, and not from a centre elsewhere.100

It has also been pointed out that surveillance can be used to inhibit employee representation in the workplace. The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) comments that "New technologies used for surveillance and control reduce the amount of social interaction between workers in the workplace and this undermines union activity, as well as workers’ capacity to organise in non-unionized workplaces."101

Closed circuit television can be used in environments where employees work in a central workplace. For staff on the move, other uses of technology are available. In a building or complex, active badges or electronic tags track the movements of individual workers as they move from room to room. In one reported American case taken up by the Communications Workers of America, a casino installed a network of sensors and smart badge transmitters which even monitored whether staff washed their hands after visiting the toilet.102

Vehicles can be fitted with software which records a driver’s working hours, mileage and speed. The development of satellite based global positioning systems also allows an employer to track with great accuracy the position of cars or trucks.

To what extent are employers choosing to make use of the opportunities for monitoring and surveillance provided by technology? A survey of about 2,100 major US firms undertaken in 2000 by the American Management Association found that nearly three-quarters recorded and reviewed employee communications and activities. The degree of monitoring appears to be increasing sharply.

Table 11: Electronic monitoring by employers, United States of America, 1997-2000






Recording & review of telephone conversations





Storage & review of voice mail messages





Storage & review of computer files





Storage & review of email messages





Monitoring Internet connections

- - -


Video recording of employee job performance





Telephone use (time spent, numbers called)





Computer use (time logged on, keystroke counts etc)





Video surveillance for security purposes





Source: AMA.103

The point must be made that these uses of technology can, of course, can be beneficial to the individual employee as much as to their employer. CCTV can help to protect vulnerable staff (for example, staff working in late-night stores or banks). Telephone call monitoring can be used for training purposes, to help workers to improve their skills. Journey monitoring software can encourage safe driving practices and discourage a culture where risky working practices are condoned. Nevertheless workers have legitimate concerns if surveillance technology is imposed on them. Clearly this is an area where agreement by negotiation is desirable.104