"There are standards in health & safety. Why should this be different?"

Minimum Standards

Private Information

Computer data banks and telephone and video monitoring make prying into the private lives of workers easier and more difficult to detect than ever before. The buildup of information collected on individual employees can be used to build personal individual profiles on much more than simply the stated objective of the monitoring system. A complete record of an employee's telephone calls contains a great deal of information about a person's personal and profesional activities, much more than just how he or she is performing on the job.(13:2) Access to an employee's email account for the purposes of monitoring abuses of the system can lead to gaining information on the employee's personal life. The technology makes it only too easy for those monitoring to overstep the bounds from business-related information to private information.

Such records then must be kept confidential. A necessary concern is then what happens to the information, and who has access to it. "Some observers have expressed fears that call records could be used to identify or harass whistleblowers, union organizers, or other dissidents within a firm or agency." (13: 2) And it may be likely that this information on an employee may travel to co-workers or possibly even future prospective employers.


This information gained from monitoring and surveillance can be used to discriminate or retaliate against employees. For instance, an employer may keep track of each employee's personal calls during lunchtime to learn that a certain employee has ties to unions (13:5). Barbara A. Beck of Springfield, N.J., reservationist for a major airline for 11 years, was fired for poor performance based on computer monitoring, consisting of "how many bookings I made every thirty minutes, the length of each call, how much time elapsed between each call, and how much time I spent away from the computer." Beck contends that her poor productivity record was falsified because she was active in unionizing efforts. She said that most employees never get to see the electronic 'evidence.' (D)

Perhaps in this case, it may be argued that Beck was culpable to some degree. But "it is not difficult to imagine that a reason would be found to reject anyone whose private life is found unacceptable by management. Perhaps the person subscribes to left-wing periodicals, or has given money to pro-union causes, or once stayed at a hotel known to be favored by homosexuals, or has had financial problems. Perhaps the person has a family history of medical problems or bought antidepressive prescription drugs." (10:288) Of course, the employer would probably not give these reasons explicitly, but would some find a way to have the employee go.

Secret Monitoring

Employees might not even realize that they are being monitored. Although at least employees of the Federal Government must be informed that a monitoring program is in effect, there is currently no requirement that any employees know precisely when they are being monitored (13: 11). "Ironically, though police must get a court order for each wire-tap they use to investigate a serious crime, employers are free to spy routinely on their employees as much as they want without the slightest suspicion of prior wrong doing. Without the workers knowing when, supervisors can plug into any of their staff's phone calls, while company computers keep track of how long employees spend with each customer and how many customers they handle each quarter hour. Some firms even record the phone dialog." (10:285-6) Secret monitoring is quite legal.

Reasonable Standards of Privacy Needed

In the early part of this century, businesses used child labor in order to become more profitable. In The Jungle, stories recounting the horrific worker conditions and tainted lard of the Chicago meat factories made it plain that there were more important things to them than the severely compromised health and safety of workers in factories and consumers who bought "Durham's Pure Beef Lard." Today, the government does not allow child labor and upholds minimum standards of health and safety. As current technology reaches to a point where routine monitoring of employees becomes a cost-efficient procedure, there is also need for a standard by which the privacy of employees will not be compromised.

If monitoring is necessary, then there must be an accompanying standard of privacy to which employers must hold. Monitoring involves issues of exercising control over workers and data about specific workers (12:4-5).

"Employees should have rights in the sense, at least, that they should not be wholly at the mercy of their employers, as slaves would be... We have minimum wage laws and some protection from occupational health hazards, on the one hand, but we allow employers to hire and fire 'at will,' on the other hand." (6:9) To allow employers access to private information is to never be able to stop their abusing such access. After all, it is hard to prove that Beck was fired because of union involvements and not simply that she was poor at her job.

Groups such as 9 to 5 and the Coalition on New Office Technology (CNOT) maintain that, at a minimum, workers should be informed when monitoring takes place (10:286). "Electronic monitoring without informing employees that it is taking place is no different than spying. Monitoring is a supervisory tool, not a tool for employee surveillance" (9).

But requiring that workers consent to the monitoring is not enough to ensure a good standard. "Desperate people can't avoid taking employment at any price - which, in a competitive market, puts pressure on everyone else to also lower their standards." Minimum standards for child labor, minimum wage, health and safety, and others, were implemented in the legal system to protect people from such an undermining trend. In the same way, there is a need to set similar minimum standards for workplace privacy, so that "technology's power to intrude is only unleashed when there is no other way to track down criminal acts." (10:287)

One example of what the standard might include is that email that an employer may read should be only business-related. The Electronic Mail Association in the United States takes the position that electronic mail is no different from desk drawers, office doors or other parameters that denote personal space in the workplace in terms of privacy, and should be treated with the same degree of concern. ("The electronic invasion of workplace privacy", (12:4-5+)

Other countries have such a privacy standard in place. In France, there are laws forbidden, with carefully listed exceptions, the collection of data that might reveal a person's political, union, or religious opinions or racial origins. Germany requires almost every firm to have a 'Privacy Officer' whose job is to ensure that only the minimal necessary amount of data are kept about employees for the shortest necessary length of time. And unsatisfied workers can demand government intervention. In Canada, it is illegal to use data for any purpose other than what was told to the individual as the reason for its collection. (10:290)

In Switzerland in 1989, employees of a watch company successfully challenged the installation of surveillance cameras in different areas of the workplace for the stated purpose of controlling the functioning of automatic machine devices. Under Swiss law, respect for the "personality right" of the worker is to be protected. The workers established that the cameras could also subject them to continuous monitoring. Under the facts of the case, the court ruled for the workers, stating that the employer failed to establish a superior interest to justify control. ("The electronic invasion of workplace privacy", 12:4-5+)

"Electronic monitoring is most likely to raise opposition among workers when it is imposed without worker participation, when standards are perceived as unfair, or when performance records are used punitively." (13:9) If monitoring is to occur, there must be a legal guideline to prevent abuse.

take me back