Firms that force remote staff to keep their webcams turned on during working hours could be breaching human rights laws, according to a legal ruling in Europe.
As reported by Metro, an American software company has come under fire after sacked a Dutch employee, who was working remotely, after they refused to keep their webcam on for the duration of their eight-hour working day.
The Florida-based company, Chetu, reportedly wanted to monitor the worker at all times via his webcam during a virtual training program, and also required the employee to share his laptop screen. When he refused, the company fired him for ‘insubordination’ and ‘refusal to work’. According to Metro, the employee said he was uncomfortable and felt it was an invasion of his privacy.
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A court in the Netherlands ruled in favour of the employee, stating that tracking worker for eight hours a day was "disproportionate" and not permitted in the Netherlands. and demanded that the company must cough up more than £44,000 (50,000 euros) in fines and court costs, and must also compensate the worker for lost wages and unused annual leave.
In its verdict, the court referenced the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, stating “Video surveillance of an employee in the workplace, be it covert or not, must be considered as a considerable intrusion into the employee’s private life”, the Metro said.
Worker surveillance on a worrying trajectory
This matter occurred abroad, but the issue of monitoring remote workers is still very much an issue that should be on the radar for UK HR leaders, especially when recent research is considered.
One in five companies has admitted either installing technology to snoop on staff or planning to. The software can log how long workers take to read and reply to messages, check attendance at meetings — or even secretly film them from their screen.
Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, told the publication: “Worker surveillance tech has taken off during this pandemic as more people have been forced to work from home.
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“We know many employers are investing in tech to micro-manage workers and automate decisions about who to hire, and who to let go. Staff must be properly consulted on the use of surveillance at work and protected from unfair management by algorithm.
“As we emerge from this crisis, technology must be used to make working lives better — not to rob people of their dignity.” Several firms have come under fire amid allegations of monitoring remote workers’ activities.
In 2020, accounting giants PwC came under fire for developing a facial recognition tool to help them monitor staff working from home, according to The Times. The technology was designed to alert bosses when workers stepped away from their desks, including to make a drink or use the bathroom.
Similarly, banking giant Barclays piloted a computer monitoring system to log the “effectiveness” of employees when at their desks.
Just over a week later, the firm pulled the plug on the tracking system in response to negative “colleague feedback”.
And earlier this year, confidential documents obtained by Motherboard showed that Amazon had outlined plans to track the keyboard and mouse patterns of remote customer service employees, in a bid to catch out rogue workers or hackers from accessing customers' data.
What is the law on monitoring remote staff?
Karen Holden, CEO of A City Law Firm, said that, although the practice is legal (and common among London-based firms), if regulations are followed, employers must be careful to show a legitimate need for the policy, as well as ensuring staff consent to the monitoring.
She previously told HR Grapevine: "Monitoring employees working remotely or at the office is not illegal if it complies with regulations including the Data Protection Act 2018, and the Employment Practices Data Protection Code 2011.
“An employer ideally should have carried out an impact assessment so it can show there is a legitimate interest behind the mechanisms and how the data is to be stored and used. This is also helpful for the employer to understand and balance trust, and motivation against any loss of staff confidence.
“The employees should provide their consent and have knowledge of what the employer is doing if an employer is to avoid potential grievances and claims.
As such a dedicated policy should be circulated to inform staff of what is being done and why to avoid surprises and confusion (unless this has already been set out in their employment contracts).”
Holden continued: “All staff should be treated equally to avoid claims of discrimination and caution should be excised not to infringe a person’s privacy by being too invasive. Given recent times an employer should be sensitive to staff well-being, health and the hours staff are working.
“This is actually common practice in large London businesses. Specifically for keystroke capture, employers will need to obtain written agreement for this type of monitoring in some cases.”
Workers concerned about ‘Big Brother’ environment
Remote workers have previously spoken out regarding 'big brother' monitoring software, with the majority sharing that they would not choose a job where their employer used software to track their work.
According to a March 2021 study by Skillcast, 59% of respondents did not want to work for any company trying to use software that could spy on them, as was reported the Standard.
Only one-third of those surveyed stated that it was acceptable if used to comply with regulations.
Despite this, many workers shared feelings of mistrust for their employers, with eight per cent saying that they think they are being monitored by such software without being told about it.
Vivek Dodd, Founder of Skillcast, said: “Our study sends a clear message – employees in all sectors strongly oppose the use of monitoring software in their homes, even if employers claim that it is required for regulatory compliance.”