Surveillance in the workplace
By Pete Hunter and Pat Fry
One of the most sophisticated new surveillance devices purchase by
corporations these days is the Veritrac 9000. It has the capability of
recording 240 conversations simultaneously at a cost of $120,000. It is
only one of an array of new technologies used by employers to monitor
employees, a practice that is coming under increasing attack by trade unions,
workers' organizations and civil liberties groups.
The Communication Workers of America (CWA), whose members are among the
most frequent targets of management surveillance in the country, estimates
that corporate supervisors listen in on 400 million calls each year. Among
the companies that admit to employee surveillance practices are United
Airlines, American Airlines, United Parcel Service, NYNEX, Spiegel and the
Wall Street Journal.
The congressional Office of Technology Assessment estimated that in 1987
that monitoring results were used in the performance evaluations of 6 million
workers, with data kept for many millions more. As many as 26 million workers
may now be under electronic scrutiny.
While businesses claim they eavesdrop to "verify information and ensure
accuracy," the CWA says that surveillance is used more as an "electronic whip"
to discipline workers.
Studies have shown that electronic monitoring is actually
counterproductive. The CWA cites the experience of a West Virginia telephone
company, where service quality increased when electronic eavesdropping was
Nine To Five, the National Association of Working Women, based in
Cleveland, sset up a hotline in January to gather first-hand experiences from
workers who have been monitored at the workplace. Staff researcher Sharon
Danann said she was surprised by the many unexpected and "bizarre" stories
they have encountered.
An Eastern Airlines reservationist was organizing for the International
Association of Machinists where she worked. Monitoring was used on her more
than others. After management found out she was collecting data for a class
action suit against the company, good performace monitoring records were
thrown out and substituted with another worker's poor record. The fake
results were used as the basis to fire her.
A sales representative for a telephone order company was fired from her
job after she was misquoted by monitors about what she supposedly said to a
Another airline reservationist described how the company listened to her
comments to co-workers between calls and wrote down everything she said. She
protested that her civil rights were being violated and was summoned to the
general manager's office. She was told the company could do anything it
wanted on its property. She was eventually fired for her public opposition
to abusive monitoring practices.
A data entry keyer for an oil company said that monitoring is used heavily
to boost productivity. Workers are regularly called into the boss' office and
threatened with demotion unless "keystrokes are brought up." Notes are left
at workstations telling workers, "Either you get your keystrokes up or get
At some workplaces, monitoring results are displayed publicly, public
phones in employee lounges are monitored, personal calls on non-work time
are monitored. One worker reported she had been subjected to calls from
employees in other offices posing as irate customers.
Another worker said her company used an employee counseling session
that was supposedly confidential to gather information. In her case, the
company found out that the employee tested positive for exposure to the AIDS
virus, and she was fired.
Overall, little research has been conducted on the impact of surveillance
at the workplace, but a study done by the Massachusetts Coalition on New
Office Technology, a public policy organization of 45 unions and women's
organizations, has recently been completed.
The study is based on interviews with 700 employees who are monitored at
work. Three-fourths of the respondents said they believe that their civil
liberties are being violated. The majority said that surveillance is not an
effective supervisory tool and does not improve productivity or quality of
service. in fact, they cited the opposite results: low worker morale, high
turnover, absenteeism and health problems -- in particular, a serious rise
in carpal tunnel syndrome. Most employees said they were not informed by
their employer of monitoring practices before they were hired.
Four states -- California, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania -- have
adopted legislation prohibiting companies from recording conversations
without the consent and knowledge of all parties.
A bill now before the House Education and Labor Subcommittee, HR-2168,
would protect employees' rights of notification and privacy in the workplace.
It was introduced by Representatives William Clay (D-MO), Pat Williams
(D-Mont), Don Edwards (D-Calif) and Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), and is supported
by unions and worker organizations.
Employers would be required to give workers and job applicants prior
written notice of the types of electronic monitoring that will be used and how
they will be used. Signal lights, beeping tones, verbal notice and other
means would be required during monitoring.
Supporters of HR 2168 are urged to write Rep. William Clay, Chair,
Subcommittee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington