A third of UK workers are surveilled by employers

Connor Jones

9 Nov, 2021

A third (32%) of UK workers are now being monitored at work using technology like tracking software and remotely controlled webcams.

The issue has worsened over the past six months, when workers being monitored stood at a quarter (24%) of those polled by Prospect.

The sharp increase comes amid a huge jump in webcam monitoring, with 13% of homeworkers currently being surveilled by their employer through their work-issued device. The figures have more than doubled in the past six months as just 5% of workers were monitored via video in April 2021.

The vast majority of those questioned thought the use of webcam monitoring by employers should either be banned (52%) or regulated (28%). Just 8% of employees reported feeling that employers should be able to monitor their webcam’s image at will.

Younger workers are thought to be particularly at risk of higher rates of monitoring by employers. Defined by an 18-34 age bracket, 48% of younger workers are believed to be monitored at home by employers, including 20% of those being monitored using a camera.

The latest findings have prompted Prospect to launch a campaign to help drive unionisation in the tech sector as it is affected by the recent upward home surveillance trend due to high levels of remote working and low levels of trade union membership.

Home surveillance will be investigated alongside other issues affecting the industry such as a culture of working long hours, workplace discrimination, and pay.

“We are used to the idea of employers checking up on workers, but when people are working in their own homes this assumes a whole new dimension,” said Mike Clancy, general secretary at Prospect. “New technology allows employers to have a constant window into their employees homes, and the use of the technology is largely unregulated by government.

“We think that we need to upgrade the law to protect the privacy of workers and set reasonable limits on the use of this snooping technology, and the public overwhelmingly agree with us. Prospect’s new tech workers sector will be campaigning on this issue and other issues affecting tech workers, and I encourage any workers who are worried about monitoring to join Prospect and support our campaign.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is currently reviewing guidance for employers on the use of technologies such as employee monitoring.

“People expect that they can keep their personal lives private and that they are also entitled to a degree of privacy in the workplace,” said an ICO spokesperson to IT Pro. “If organisations wish to monitor their employees, they should be clear about its purpose and that it brings real benefits. Organisations also need to make employees aware of the nature, extent and reasons for any monitoring.

“We are currently working on updating our employment practices guidance to address the changes in data protection law and to reflect the new ways employers use technology and interact with staff.”

Workplace monitoring saw a steep rise over the course of the pandemic which saw the nations’ workforce largely adopt a work from home policy.

Some business managers report using the technology to ‘feel closer to their workforce’ and have reported using the tools for good, offering bonuses and promotions for demonstrably good work.

Questions around the privacy and ethical issues of the technology’s use remain, however. Jim Killock, executive director at Open Rights Group, said to IT Pro: “employers think they have a free pass to monitor as they like, but they do not. They have to consider and consult about the impacts on workers, whose dignity and interests must be preserved. Employers are required to be transparent and accountable.

“The government plans to scrap such restraints in their current GDPR consultation, but people should get on and use their rights,” he added.

The sentiment is echoed by Chi Onwurah, MP and shadow digital minister, who said: “This deeply worrying research shows just how anxious many people are about the use of invasive surveillance whilst they work. Ministers must urgently provide better regulatory oversight of online surveillance software to ensure people have the right to privacy whether in their workplace or home.

“The bottom line is that workers should not be subject to digital surveillance without their informed consent, and there should be clear rules, rights and expectations for both businesses and workers,” she added.