Remote workers at increased risk of workplace spying, union warns

Remote workers are being subjected to increased surveillance by employers, according to a report by UK workers union, The Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Intrusive worker surveillance technology and artificial intelligence risk ‘spiralling out of control’ without stronger regulation to protect workers, unions have warned.

About 60% of employees reported being subject to some form of technological surveillance and monitoring at their current or most recent job, in a survey by the TUC published on Monday. This number was up from 53% the previous year. 

The TUC, which represents 5.5 million members from 48 unions in England and Wales, found that most workers have experienced surveillance in the past year and overwhelmingly support stronger regulation against it.

Technologies could lead to widespread discrimination, work intensification and unfair treatment if left unchecked, warned the TUC.

Workplace surveillance tech reportedly took off during the pandemic as employers shifted to more remote forms of work.

The surveillance can include monitoring of emails and files, webcams on work computers, tracking of when and how much a worker is typing, calls made and movements made by workers.

‘Worker surveillance tech has taken off during this pandemic, and now risks spiralling out of control,’ said Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary.

The ‘creeping role’ of AI and tech-driven workplace surveillance is now spreading beyond the gig economy into the rest of the labour market, according to the TUC.

AI-powered technologies are even being used to analyse facial expressions, tone of voice and accents to assess candidates’ suitability for roles, said the report.

The TUC is calling for a statutory duty to consult trade unions before an employer introduces the use of artificial intelligence and automated decision-making systems, and an Employment Bill which includes the right to disconnect, alongside digital rights to improve transparency around use of surveillance technology.

‘Employers are delegating serious decisions to algorithms, such as recruitment, promotions and sometimes even sackings,’ said O’Grady.

The computer scandal involving sub-postmasters has been a turning point on uncritical use of worker-monitoring tech, said the union organisation.

‘The Post Office scandal must be a turning point. Nobody should have their livelihood taken away by technology,’ said O’Grady.

‘Workers must be properly consulted on the use of AI, and be protected from its punitive ways of working,’ he added.

‘It’s time for ministers to bring forward the long-awaited Employment Bill to give workers a right to disconnect and properly switch off outside of working hours,’

The government responded to the report saying that it was wholeheartedly committed to improving and upholding workers’ rights.

‘The UK has world leading data protection laws, and the Information Commissioner has tough powers to investigate and fine companies which breach an employee’s right to privacy,’ said a government spokesperson.

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