Workers ‘deeply uncomfortable’ with digital surveillance at work

Workers ‘deeply uncomfortable’ with digital surveillance at work

Employees express discomfort towards employers’ use of various digital surveillance and monitoring techniques, which are often powered by artificial intelligence

Sebastian Klovig Skelton

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Published: 05 Jun 2023 15:57

UK workers are “deeply uncomfortable” with digital surveillance and automated decision-making in the workplace, a survey by union Prospect has found.

In a poll of over 1,100 technology workers in the UK, carried out by Opinium Research on behalf of Prospect, the tech union found strong  opposition to all forms of digital surveillance at work, as well as important decisions about their employment being made via algorithm.

On the use of wearable tracking devices to monitor their location, for example, only 15% of workers said they would be comfortable with their employer using this technology, while 71% said they would not.

Employers’ use of cameras to monitor workers in the office and at home was similarly unpopular, with 69% saying they would be uncomfortable with it and just 14% saying it would be acceptable to them. A further 59% said they would be uncomfortable with the practice of keystroke monitoring to assess how often and quickly people are working.

The poll also found that most workers (62%) were uncomfortable with the use of software by human resource (HR) departments to make automated hiring and promotion decisions, compared with 17% who were comfortable with it.

A significant minority expressed further concerns around the deployment process, with 45% believing they would not be consulted on the introduction of new technologies at work, or how they would be used. One in three added they were not confident they knew what data their employer was collecting about them.

“This research shows the deep level of concern many workers have with new and more intrusive forms of digital surveillance, which is all too often introduced by employers without proper conversations with the workforce”
Andrew Pakes, Prospect

“This research shows the deep level of concern many workers have with new and more intrusive forms of digital surveillance, which is all too often introduced by employers without proper conversations with the workforce,” said Prospect’s deputy general secretary, Andrew Pakes.

“The underlying ‘datafication’ of workers risks driving an intensification of jobs that is bad for productivity, health and morale.

“Respondents to our polling on surveillance described ‘feeling like a work machine instead of a person’, and said they felt intimidated and believed they were being watched because they were not trusted,” added Pakes.

While the onset of the pandemic prompted many enterprises to start using these monitoring techniques to keep an eye on their employees’ productivity while working from home, previous polling from Prospect shows these practices have become a feature of the UK’s post-pandemic economy, with one in five workers – regardless of whether they are working remotely or in the office – now being subject to workplace surveillance software.

A separate March 2022 survey, conducted by Britain Thinks on behalf of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) – which has warned on multiple occasions that invasive workplace monitoring is “spiralling out of control” – found the proportion was even higher, with 60% of workers saying they had been subject to some form of surveillance or monitoring by their employer.

A further three in 10 agreed that these digital surveillance practices had increased since the start of the pandemic.

Many of these surveillance practices are powered by artificial intelligence (AI), which – according to a Parliamentary inquiry into AI-based workplace surveillance that concluded in November 2021 – is being used to monitor and control workers with little accountability or transparency.

“A growing body of evidence points to significant negative impacts on the conditions and quality of work across the country [as a result of AI],” said the inquiry’s report. “Pervasive monitoring and target-setting technologies, in particular, are associated with pronounced negative impacts on mental and physical well-being as workers experience the extreme pressure of constant, real-time micro-management and automated assessment.”

While not asked about the AI aspect of surveillance, 58% of workers surveyed by Prospect believed the government should regulate the use of generative AI at work to protect people’s jobs. Just 12% thought the benefits of generative AI were likely to outweigh the costs, and that the government should therefore not interfere.

“As AI promises even greater disruption to the world of work, we need government to step up and work with workers and companies on new rules to make sure technology is used fairly,” said Pakes.

Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy added that while AI and technology were already transforming how people work, governance and regulation has not kept pace despite strong public support for clear rules to prevent its abuse.

“Advances in technology have the potential to bring huge benefits to both employers and workers, but without government setting out clear rules, sinister surveillance and software supervisors could become the norm,” he said.

“As the way we work changes, workers should join a union to ensure they have a strong voice fighting for a future of work that is fair.”

In February 2022, Prospect published guidance to help workers negotiate with employers about the use of various digital technologies in the workplace, putting particular emphasis on the need for unions to establish collective bargaining over how technology is deployed.

In May 2023, Labour MP Mick Whitley introduced “a people-focused and rights-based” bill to regulate the use of AI at work, which includes provisions for employers to meaningfully consult with employees and their trade unions before introducing AI into the workplace, as well as to reverse the burden of proof in AI-based discrimination claims so it’s the employer that has to establish their algorithm did not discriminate.

However, while the bill has been listed for a second reading on 24 November 2023, it was introduced as a 10-minute rule motion, which rarely become law and are more often used as a mechanism to generate debate on important issues and test Parliamentary opinion.

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