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Invigilation of employees straight out of George Orwell

LESLEY ANNE URE looks at the threat posed to privacy by webcam surveillance of workers at their homes

AS of March 2020 people in call centres were designated as key workers and they have been working hard all through the lockdowns across the UK. 

Depending on the nature of the call centre work some of these staff have been helping to keep isolated people connected to the internet and therefore to family, they have helped people move to telephone banking or have continued to ensure that emergency calls were answered. 

These are just a few examples of the unacknowledged and critical role call centre workers have played.

Covid-19 brought with it many challenges and you could lose count of the comments, memes and videos you come across wishing the year of Covid would come to an end. 

Some employers are taking a novel approach to year of Covid by rolling back the clock to 1984 – George Orwell’s 1984. Big brother. 

Particular to the already heavily monitored call centre environment a campaign group named Call Centre Collective — a trade union-backed grassroots organisation — has exposed some worrying moves in call centres to increase monitoring to what can only be described as surveillance. 

Workers in call centres already have the duration of calls measured, call outcomes registered and log-on times monitored to the nth degree.

Not fulfilling the current performance evaluations often means lesser or no bonus for them. 

Under cover of a vague rationale such as team communication or clear desk policies some employers are deploying webcams to allow them to watch people while they work from home. 

Workers are, unsurprisingly, concerned that webcam usage could be abused and in many cases are wondering why it would be deemed necessary when there are already tight performance and monitoring measures in place. 

Unlike clicking on a link to join a video meeting, the rollout of webcams can mean that employers watch workers in their homes whenever it suits them.  

Despite the “paper promises” the employers are making to not abuse the use of this hardware, workers have been in touch with Call Centre Collective to express their concerns.

One worker (who cannot be named for fear of employer reprisal) said: “My employer has taken little interest in my mental health over the past year and now I am feeling under even more pressure. This is a real and unnecessary intrusion into my home.  How can my employer expect me to trust them when they don’t show any trust in me.”

Craig Anderson of Call Centre Collective said: “We know of at least two call centre employers that are making these Orwellian moves and we are extremely concerned that this is the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to the disadvantages of home working. 

“We are disappointed that the positives home working can bring are being ignored and that employers are exploiting technology to invade people’s homes.”

He added: “Employers need to remember that they are guests in their workers’ homes — it is not just a rent-free extension of the office. 

“Call Centre Collective intend to keep their investigations and campaign against these moves running as long as it is necessary.  We will be monitoring the monitors.”

This worrying and exploitive development should shake workers to their boots and be a warning to the labour movement that there are lines that cannot be crossed.

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