Digital technology is changing how we work, we need new rights to match it

Andrew Pakes, Research Director · 20 January 2023

As remote working became common during the pandemic, there was an explosion of new digital tools to keep us connected and working.

In January 2020, Ofcom reported that just under 700,000 Brits were using Zoom. By April that had rocketed to 13 million people. Digital technology kept us together. But it also transformed how we are managed and work.

We now have access to technology that allows many of us to work from almost anywhere, but it also means our work can follow us everywhere.

Prospect was already alert to technology that allows employers to keep track of their workforce before the pandemic. This is often referred to as monitoring or surveillance software. This isn’t about video conferencing or staying in touch with colleagues, it is about the deployment of powerful new tools that allow employers to watch, record and performance manage us, often with the software (sometimes using AI) making the assessment.

These tools are even creating their own language of ‘people analytics’, ‘task allocation software’ and ‘productivity scores’, or less cheerfully ‘bossware’. The reality is that tools now exist – and are used – that allow employers to check up on your email response times, review what websites you have viewed, assess your emotional engagement with customers and clients, decide whether you are productive or not, and if you should be promoted or penalised. Our US colleagues at Co-Worker have produced a ground-breaking report that traces over 500 surveillance software products now available on the world market. At the creepy tech end of the market this includes products with names such as ‘Sneak’ and ‘StaffCop’.

Data and automated decision-making are now new frontlines in workers’ rights. Whereas many of our existing rights were forged in an era of physical harms and risks, in this new era those harms are virtual, in the cloud and powered by algorithms, harder to detect or hold accountable.

Everyone has the right to basic privacy, to have a personal life that is separate from work, and to have respect in our working lives, including respect and trust from our employers and a voice in decisions that affect us.

We need an overhaul of our employment protections to include data rights and put in place mechanisms to ensure workers are consulted about harms and risks to them, just as we are on health and safety. Alongside the Institute for the Future of Work we support a new AI Accountability Act and, with the TUC, want to see new data rights from day one at work.

We submitted a response to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) consultation on monitoring at work making clear ‘about the role of workers in the implementation of surveillance tools at work and recognise the role of remote monitoring now that many people are working flexibly or from home.’

GDPR may be based on data protection rather than employment rights, but it does mandate employers to conduct impact assessments whenever they conduct large scale data collection on their employees, and part of this assessment should be consultation with the workforce and their unions. We have also provided our own guides for members about GDPR and digital technology at work, and undertaken training for reps on how to negotiate on the issues it raises. The positive news is that many employers are struggling with the power of this new technology as well, and they want to work with their staff to get the balance right for everyone.

We first called for the ICO to act in 2019 before the pandemic. Its existing Employment Practices Code was already outdated before the pandemic and did not make clear the rights of individuals and workers representatives to be informed and involved when our data is processed. We already knew that technology was outpacing existing guidance, but it has taken a long time to get the ICO to see the problem. Along with Chi Onwurah MP we have continually pressed the ICO and government to bring the rules into line with the daily experience of too many people already facing monitoring.

So, this is the next step in a consistent campaign. Technological innovation is a constant in the world of work. Our jobs, our lives and how we are managed will continue to change due to the application of technology. Our mission is to ensure workers are partners in innovation and that the benefits of technology can be embraced and maximised. That means negating the damaging impacts on individual dignity and the quality of working life of tools such as surveillance software and algorithmic management tools.

worker at screen with text projected onto face

Future of work, technology and data

Campaigning for better work for all in the new normal