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Clive Palmer, hero of the average Joe

Workplace Surveillance Laws

Are you reading this at work? Taking a quick break to peruse it on your phone? If you’re on your computer, have you carefully positioned your monitor so no one can see?

Is your boss watching? No? Are you sure?

Who is watching you at work?

Who is watching you at work?

We hate to creep you out like this, but it’s a reality of the modern workplace that you are more than likely being monitored in one way or another. It might be something as seemingly benign as CCTV cameras (for “security purposes”), or it might be something more invasive. Social media monitoring, drug testing, health information, the use of digital platforms, online monitoring of employees’ keystrokes and emails and the use of tracking devices are just some of the approaches employers are taking to scrutinise workers.

During a year where many people found themselves working from home, we heard stories from across several unions that ranged from managers “just dropping in” to workers’ homes to check they were at their desks, to employers calling the police for phony welfare checks on workers. 

One group of workers who contacted the Young Workers Centre last year reported having to stay logged into a Zoom call for the entire day so the boss could watch them work. The boss would become verbally aggressive if anyone switched off their camera. (They eventually worked with the union to end this practice.)

Other stories are more difficult to verify. We know that software exists which allows employers to take screenshots of workers’ computers at random times throughout the day. We know that software exists to do the same for webcams, which would be especially easy to install if the employer gave you a computer set-up to take home with you. 

All you have to do is Google “workplace surveillance software” and you’ll see how much of a boom industry it is.

A small sample of the ever growing range of tools that enable bosses to invasively monitor workers.

A small sample of the ever growing range of tools that enable bosses to invasively monitor workers.

From Best Employee Monitoring Software for 2020: "Teramind’s comprehensive tracking functionality can capture any user activity. These can range from screen recordings, live views of employee PCs, tracking emails, and keystrokes all the way to Zoom sessions, all of which earns it our Editors' Choice pick for employee monitoring."

Did you catch the phrases "screen recordings", "live views" and "tracking emails" in the screenshot, above? The Editor's Choice winner really worked hard for that title.

But once the software is installed and in use, it becomes invisible. Companies don’t have to disclose what they’re using or how they’re using it. The laws for workplace surveillance were written in 2006 as an amendment to the Surveillance Devices Act (1999). They pretty much only prohibit the use of surveillance devices in the workplace in toilets, washrooms, change rooms and lactation rooms.

This is a massive hole in our workplace laws. Victoria sorely needs laws that legislate limits on the use of optical, audio, tracking and data surveillance devices.

Your Call may be Monitored

Probably the most closely-monitored workers in Australia are those in call centres. If you’ve ever called your bank, internet provider or pretty much any kind of customer service line, you’ll have heard, “This call may be monitored to ensure the highest standards of” blah blah blah. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the monitoring of call centre workers. 

“If your shift is scheduled to start at 9am, that means you have to be logged in and on a call at 9am on the dot," says Hugh, an ASU delegate in a Melbourne call centre on one of his rigidly-timed breaks. "If not, you’re late. But there’s a bunch of other things you have to do before you get on that first call: boot up the computer, log into the software, check your emails, check the roster, all that sort of stuff which can take up to 15 minutes every morning. And that’s time you’re not getting paid for. But it’s the call times that they can track and enforce most easily, so that’s what they use.”

It’s basically wage theft. Culturally, it’s toxic. There’s a standard - the expectations - and there’s no variance allowed.
— Hugh, ASU Delegate

“They call it ‘adherence’,” says John, a call centre organiser with the ASU. It’s a very ominous name for it. “It’s basically your ability to stick to the schedule. They put the amount of time you spent logged in against the amount of time you were supposed to be logged in, and if they don’t match up well enough your ‘adherence’ is deemed not good enough.”

You also get what is called ‘leakage’, which is an awful term to use when talking about people taking bathroom breaks.

"Basically it’s a two percent leeway on your adherence targets which is unaccounted time. It’s for bathroom breaks, and it works out to about eight minutes in an eight-hour day. If you go over that, it affects your adherence, which then affects your KPIs and potentially your pay.”

Being watched is one thing, but another is the feeling of being watched. Or feeling like you might be watched, even if you can't be sure. It’s a psychological thing. The anxiety of being under scrutiny, potentially at any given time, can (and often does) lead to psychological injury.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if there was a clear policy,” says Hugh. “I’ve worked for large international companies where surveillance is randomised and transparent. You know what things are and aren’t monitored, and you know that you’re not being targeted any more or less than your co-workers. There are rules and there is clarity.

“But here, at my current job, I have no idea."

It’s always in the back of your mind that they could be watching.

And with the great eye always watching, it can be hard to speak openly about some very important things. Like the union, for example.

Amazon: The Gold Standard of Surveillance

The eyes of the world were fixed on Amazon’s facility in Bessemer, Alabama in recent weeks. The workers at the facility were set to vote on whether or not they wanted to establish a union (because unions are weird like that in the US.) This would have been the first of its kind in a US Amazon warehouse. Prior to and during the vote, many stories about the conditions experienced by these workers came out. At the heart of the majority of these stories was a common factor: surveillance.

But not just surveillance: a particularly insidious type of disciplinary surveillance.

One worker told The Guardian in a 2020 exposé

You’re being tracked by a computer the entire time you’re there. You don’t get reported or written up by managers. You get written up by an algorithm.

“You’re keenly aware there is an algorithm keeping track of you, making sure you keep going as fast as you can, because if there is too much time lapsed between items, the computer will know this, will write you up, and you will get fired."

Now, let’s say you’re an Amazon worker and someone approaches you to talk about the upcoming union vote. Do you feel comfortable speaking, knowing how closely you are being monitored? Several comprehensive post-mortems have been written following the failed vote, but one very important observation was that organisers focused a lot of energy on talking to workers in the workplace or at the front gate. Those workers would have been well aware of their employer’s practices and would likely have been reluctant to speak with organisers at the factory entrance. And who could blame them?

Amazon doesn’t just use surveillance technology, they develop it themselves. Recently they have filed patents for a wristband that “can precisely track where warehouse employees are placing their hands and use vibrations to nudge them in a different direction.” They are trying to manage and monitor workers down to even the tiniest muscle movements. 

In possibly the most terrifying press release we have ever seen, Amazon proudly declared in 2019 that “Today, we are launching accuracy and functionality improvements to our face analysis features… In addition, we have improved accuracy for emotion detection (for all 7 emotions: ‘Happy’, ‘Sad’, ‘Angry’, ‘Surprised’, ‘Disgusted’, ‘Calm’ and ‘Confused’) and added a new emotion: ‘Fear’.”

Yes, that’s right: Amazon can now detect fear in its workers. There’s probably a lot of it. Fear that they won’t meet their targets. Fear that they’re going to hurt themselves in a rush to do so. Fear that they won’t be able to pay medical bills. Fear that they are going to run their bodies into the ground for a man who is likely to become the world’s first trillionaire. Fear that they can’t speak up about anything. Fear that if they do, they will have nowhere else to go. No way to support themselves and their families. 

So often we look at the United States as a world away, with a particularly harsh brand of capitalism that doesn’t (and couldn’t) exist here. Undoubtedly, it does have a distinct brand. But the idea that “it could never happen here” is ridiculous because, as workers in call centres and our very own distribution centres can attest, it already is. 

Hugh, ASU call centre delegate, has seen it first hand. 

“I’ve observed them targeting people who are union members. I’ve gotten negative feedback on my performance, based on nothing, because I’m a vocal union member.”

Still think it couldn’t happen here? There’s no room for complacency.

We hate to creep you out like this, but it’s a reality of the modern workplace that you are more than likely being monitored in one way or another. It might be something as seemingly benign as CCTV cameras (for “security purposes”), or it might be something more invasive. Social media monitoring, drug testing, health information, the use of digital platforms, online monitoring of employees’ keystrokes and emails and the use of tracking devices are just some of the approaches employers are taking to scrutinise workers.

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