From education to employment

Intrusive worker surveillance tech risks “spiralling out of control” without stronger regulation, TUC warns

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady

Intrusive worker surveillance tech and AI risks “spiralling out of control” without stronger regulation to protect workers, the TUC has today (Monday) warned.

Left unchecked, the union body says that these technologies could lead to widespread discrimination, work intensification and unfair treatment.

The warning comes as the TUC publishes new polling, conducted by Britain Thinks, which reveals an overwhelming majority of workers (60 per cent) say they have been subject to some form of surveillance and monitoring at their current or most recent job.

The TUC says workplace surveillance tech took off during the pandemic as employers transferred to more remote forms of work.

Surveillance can include monitoring of emails and files, webcams on work computers, tracking of when and how much a worker is typing, calls made and movements made by the worker (using CCTV and trackable devices).

Three in 10 (28 per cent) agree monitoring and surveillance at work has increased since Covid – and young workers are particularly likely to agree (36 per cent of 18-34 year olds).

There has been a notable increase in workers reporting surveillance and monitoring in the past year alone (60 per cent in 2021 compared to 53 per cent 2020).

In particular, more workers are reporting monitoring of staff devices (24 per cent to 20 per cent) and monitoring of phone calls (14 per cent to 11 per cent) compared to 2020.

In calling for stronger regulation, the TUC highlights the recent Post Office scandal which saw hundreds wrongly prosecuted for theft and false accounting after a software error – and says it must be a turning point on uncritical use of worker monitoring tech and AI.

Creeping role of surveillance

The creeping role of AI and tech-driven workplace surveillance is now spreading far beyond the gig economy into the rest of the labour market, according to the TUC.

The following sectors have the greatest proportion of workers reporting surveillance:

  • financial services (74 per cent)
  • wholesale and retail (73 per cent)
  • utilities (73 per cent)

The union body warns of a huge lack of transparency over the use of AI at work, with many staff left in the dark over how surveillance tech is being used to make decisions that directly affect them.

The use of automated decision making via AI includes selecting candidates for interview, day-to-day line management, performance ratings, shift allocation and deciding who is disciplined or made redundant.

The TUC adds that AI-powered technologies are currently being used to analyse facial expressions, tone of voice and accents to assess candidates’ suitability for roles.

Union demands

To combat the rise of workplace surveillance tech and “management by algorithm”, the TUC is calling for:

  • A statutory duty to consult trade unions before an employer introduces the use of artificial intelligence and automated decision-making systems.
  • An employment bill which includes the right to disconnect, alongside digital rights to improve transparency around use of surveillance tech
  • A universal right to human review of high-risk decisions made by technology 

The TUC points out that the government recently consulted on diluting General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as part of its post-Brexit divergence agenda, despite it providing some key protections for workers against surveillance tech.

The EU is currently putting in place laws dealing specifically with the use of AI, whereas the UK does not have anything like this. The TUC says this is yet another example of the UK falling behind its EU counterparts on workers’ rights.

There is significant and growing support among workers for stronger regulation of AI and tech-driven workplace surveillance:

  • Eight in ten (82 per cent) now support a legal requirement on employers to consult before introducing monitoring (compared to 75 per cent in 2020)
  • Eight in 10 (77 per cent) support no monitoring outside working hours, suggesting strong support for a right to disconnect (compared to 72 per cent in 2020)
  • Seven in 10 (72 per cent) say that without careful regulation, using technology to make decisions about workers could increase unfair treatment (compared to 61 per cent 2020).

Last year the TUC launched its manifesto, Dignity at work and the AI revolution, for the fair and transparent use of AI at work.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“Worker surveillance tech has taken off during this pandemic – and now risks spiralling out of control.

“Employers are delegating serious decisions to algorithms – such as recruitment, promotions and sometimes even sackings.

“The Post Office scandal must be a turning point. Nobody should have their livelihood taken away by technology.

“Workers must be properly consulted on the use of AI, and be protected from its punitive ways of working.

“And it’s time for ministers to bring forward the long-awaited employment bill to give workers a right to disconnect and properly switch off outside of working hours.”

Related Articles