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Why we must push back against shocking levels of surveillance in Welsh workplaces

15 Dec 2021 4 minute read
Surveillance. By Chris Yang on Unsplash

Sarah Murphy, Labour MS for Bridgend

Working people are at the at the coalface of new technologies – ones that can monitor, categorise and pressurise workers to meet ever increasing targets.

The levels of surveillance becoming commonplace in many workplaces are shocking, and the impact this is having on workers’ rights is hard to overstate. In Wales we are not immune from these issues.

There are big questions to be asked about what level of technology we are willing to tolerate coming into our everyday working lives. Data is routinely collected and used to make decisions for many working people: whether it is in determining if enough minutes are spent productively, if workers are taking breaks for too long, or assigning a value onto someone that cannot be challenged.

In my research at the Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture (JOMEC) into this issue, alongside Professor Lina Dencik, I interviewed seventeen people from as many trade unions – which showed a real range of issues coming out of these new technologies.

There were deaths at work due to ineffective surveillance technology. Union laptops and workers records being illegally seized during disputes. Workers fainting at work because an algorithm said they could do the impossible. Trade Union reps being excluded from workplaces, and monitored by facial recognition surveillance cameras if they do get access to their own members.

This isn’t a new phenomenon that has cropped up in the last few years. In 2011, covert surveillance cameras were installed in workers mess rooms at Tata Steel in Port Talbot, leading to thirteen workers being dismissed. Over these last ten years there has been nothing done by the Tory government in Westminster to protect working people’s rights as these technologies increase their sophistication in people’s working lives.

Instead, with the anti-trade union legislation passed in 2016 they’ve only weakened workers’ voices in most workplaces.

I’ll be watching you

The TUC has done important work on this, with their reports ‘I’ll be watching you – A report on workplace monitoring’; ‘Technology Managing People – the legal implications’ and the recent ‘Wales TUC: Worker surveillance on the rise in Wales’.

I sponsored an event with them exploring this important topic in the Senedd recently, and I am currently setting up a Cross-Party Group (CPG) to further work on the issue.

There should be real concerns about the working people being stripped of their privacy, freedom and wellbeing. Increasing tech in work might seem like it can only bring benefits, and things such as remote workplaces have been invaluable in the pandemic – but not if workers are now under surveillance in their own homes whilst they work. We need to empower workers across Wales to know they can contact their union to stand up to any encroachment into their lives.

Our Welsh Labour Government is committed to Fair Work and Social Partnership, and we need to ensure in Wales that we push back against these risks and empower trade unions. But workers’ rights are not devolved – so we are reliant on a Conservative Westminster Government to stand up to many of these threats.

We are at a crossroads. We can either let this continue and see our workforce become exploited, divided and forced to meet homogenous standards.

Or we can face it. Scrutinise it. Use the opportunity of social partnership and our trade union movement to fight to be a true fair work nation in an increasingly datafied, surveillance-led economy. This is what I intend to do.

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Malcolm rj
Malcolm rj
2 years ago

The younger generation started to abandon the unions and nowadays the employers can do whatever they like with the workers they didn’t realize how hard workers fought for the rights that they had. that’s now have been slowly getting taken away

2 years ago

It is bound to end in tears, although it could lead to a backlash if workers get sufficiently angry about the intrusion of tech surveillance. Using arbitrary algorithms to set standards is an old discredited trick yet employers get away with it simply because people don’t understand what’s being done until it’s too well embedded into systems. Unions should be more militant about these excesses instead of letting politicians do the shouting which often ends up as selfserving grandstanding. Workers with some tech skills may find ways of jamming or blocking the more intrusive muck and when questioned the workforce… Read more »

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
2 years ago

There has to a balance between employer and employee and at the moment the employer has all the power. I know that not all employers are the same but if not kept under control, through regulation, many will abuse their poistion. It’s happened thoughout history. As an independent nation we would have the opportunity to establish balance.

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