TUC calls for workforce consultation on e-mail rules

New Regulations in the UK governing interception of workplace communications, effective from 24 October 2000, have been criticised by the Trades Union Congress, which is calling on employers to consult their employees about surveillance at work.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Industrial Society have published a set of guidelines designed to promote consultation between employers and employees over workplace rules on the use of e-mail and access to the internet. The guidelines say that "sensible solutions" are needed which should encourage responsible behaviour and good management practice while safeguarding worker privacy.

The TUC and the Industrial Society acknowledge that employers need to protect themselves and their staff from abusive or obscene e-mail, but argue that this should not be at the expense of employee privacy. The guidelines suggest that, among other matters, e-mail policies should:

  • warn users that e-mails may be electronically scanned for obscene, indecent, racist or illegal remarks;
  • allow for occasional and reasonable personal use of e-mail, as long as this does not interfere with an employee's work;
  • give assurances that e-mails between trade union representatives and members will not be monitored or read by managers; and
  • remind employees that their e-mails may be checked by others at work if they are unexpectedly absent or have gone on leave without leaving forwarding arrangements.

They also state that good employers should be open about what forms of surveillance are being used and why, seek the consent of employees subject to monitoring and consult union representatives about surveillance policies.

The guidelines reflect trade union criticism of the provisions of the Telecommunications (Lawful Business Practice) (Interception of Communications) Regulations 2000, which came into force on 24 October 2000. These authorise employers to monitor employees' telephone calls, e-mails and internet use for a range of purposes without their consent. Union advisors believe the new rules may conflict with other legislation, including the right to privacy under the Human Rights Act 1998, and that a review of the "uncertain legal framework" governing surveillance is urgently needed.

TUC general secretary John Monks said in a statement: "The recent Regulations have left many employees worried that managers might be snooping on their personal e-mails. And employers fear that if they open any e-mail containing private information they could be breaching the Human Rights Act. But instead of reacting by banning the personal use of e-mail at work, it makes more sense for employers to consult with their workforce and draw up guidance which protects and reassures everyone."

According to Will Hutton, chief executive of the Industrial Society: "Employers are increasingly aware of 'cyberliability' and e-mail abuse and are using more covert and intrusive methods of surveillance. While employers have legitimate interests to protect, over-zealous monitoring can undermine employees' dignity and autonomy within the workplace."

The position on workplace monitoring is further complicated by a draft code of practice on "the use of personal data in employer-employee relationships" issued for consultation by the government-appointed Data Protection Commissioner. This includes provisions on automated monitoring of employees' communications, which state that "routine monitoring of the content of all communications sent and received at work" is unlikely to be justifiable and that employers must ensure that employees are aware of any monitoring and the purpose behind it. The Confederation of British Industry considers that the draft code is "confusing" and "at odds with" the Regulations, and has criticised the lack of "joined up thinking" between the Department of Trade and Industry, responsible for the Regulations, and the Data Protection Commissioner.

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