Respect for employees’ privacy in IT use at work

In Slovakia, protection of employees’ privacy in relation to the use of new information and communication technologies in the workplace, such as the internet and email, is not regulated by law. Although cases of unauthorised usage have resulted in disciplinary proceedings, there are no known cases of labour disputes in this matter. This topic has not been the subject of collective bargaining, nor has it been included in the agenda of the social partners. Moreover, legislative regulation of the issue is not under consideration at present.

Internet usage

Although the level of internet usage in Slovakia is still relatively low, it has, however, been gradually increasing. Surveys conducted by individual agencies show that the data on internet usage are rather varied. In total, around 20% to 30% of adults are thought to have internet access. A survey conducted by the GfK agency indicated that 23% of citizens had internet access in 2002, while another survey (Obcania Slovenska a elektronické služby verejnej správy) by the MVK agency revealed that nearly 33% of people had internet access in 2003. According to a survey by the FOCUS agency (Digitálna gramotnost na Slovensku), the internet was used regularly by 22% of respondents in 2005, mainly at work, but also as part of people’s studies and at home.

The surveys reveal that internet users are mainly managers, entrepreneurs, technicians, scientists and students. Moreover, the majority of internet users are young people with a university degree or secondary education. The government has also supported wider internet use by providing financial subsidies to new users in 2006.

The internet is being used in both the private and public sector. The majority of companies use the internet to search for information and for electronic communication. According to a report (Úroven rozvoja internetu na Slovensku 2003) by the Research Institute of Communications (Výskumný ústav spojov, VÚS), approximately 51% of people with internet access use it at work. The MVK survey estimated that 1.15 million people have access to the internet, around half of whom (nearly 29% of the total workforce) use it at work.

In the framework of a project (Elektronické služby verejnej správy na Slovensku) managed by the Ministry of Transport, Post Offices and Telecommunications (Ministerstvo dopravy, pôšt a telekomunikácií Slovenskej republiky, MDPT SR), the agency TNS SK conducted a survey in the sectors of manufacturing, construction, wholesale and retail, hotels and restaurants, transport and communications, and real estate in 2005. According to the survey, nearly 90% of the enterprises covered have internet connections; over 80% of these enterprises allow their employees to use the internet at work. The survey also reveals that nearly 45% of communications are being conducted electronically, 10% of which are operated using mobile telephones. The internet is also being used for e-banking, e-commerce, e-learning and for communications with state administration agencies via e-government.

Regulation concerning privacy at the workplace

General regulations

According to the amended Labour Code Act No. 311/2001, the employer has the general right to control the work performance of employees at the workplace – for example, their labour productivity, use of working hours, observance of working rules and their use of employers’ property. In its section on the prohibition of discrimination, the Labour Code stipulates that the rights and obligations of the employer and employee must be respected; moreover, nobody has the right to misuse these rights and obligations to the detriment of the other party. The so-called Anti-discrimination Act No. 365/2004 also indirectly refers to the issue of respecting a person’s privacy in general.

Regulations regarding use of new technology

The protection of employees’ privacy in relation to the use of new information and communication technologies (ICT) at the workplace, such as the internet and email, has not been regulated by specific legislation in Slovakia. The protection of a person’s privacy is generally regulated only through legislation pertaining to the protection of personal data, namely Act No. 428/2002 on the protection of personal data. This issue has not been the subject of collective bargaining.

Respecting employees’ privacy at the workplace could be regulated by internal working rules within companies. For example, in some organisations, the use of email, the internet and telephone is regulated by internal working rules. Based on these rules, employees can only send emails related to their work tasks and duties. However, the number of companies with internal rules prohibiting private emails and telephone calls appears to be relatively small in Slovakia. Furthermore, these companies usually do not specify any sanctions for breaching these rules. The legal penalisation of such breaches can only be performed in a general way, by citing a breach of work discipline provided for under the Labour Code.

Employee representatives – usually the trade unions – protect employees’ rights in accordance with labour legislation, primarily the Labour Code. However, protecting employees’ privacy in relation to the use of internet and email in the workplace does not currently appear to be high on the agenda of the trade unions.

Some companies do monitor employees’ emails and the creation of personal documents and files on their computers. However, while the control of employees’ emails is technically possible, it is often considered unethical. Restricting the use of email, the internet and telephone for private purposes is not an issue which is generally regulated by employers, since it is very difficult to strictly define the boundaries of ‘private use’. Slovakian legislation does not even explicitly define what it classifies as a personal email. Visiting internet websites with inappropriate or unethical content is usually forbidden in companies and technical measures are taken to block such access. According to available information, the monitoring and control of internet and email use in the workplace is usually conducted randomly – for example, on the basis of certain inspections or control actions.

In cases where internet and email use in the workplace was the subject of disciplinary proceedings, the process was managed in accordance with Labour Code provisions. In most cases, only small sanctions were imposed – for example, warnings, the removal of internet access, and the withholding of benefits.

It is understood that the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family (Ministerstvo práce, sociálnych vecí a rodiny Slovenskej republiky, MPSVR SR) does not register any complaints by employees or calls for legal regulation, nor is the ministry in the process of preparing any draft legislation concerning this issue.

Moreover, there is no available information on any significant labour conflict cases concerning this issue in Slovakia. The existing cases were settled without any individual labour disputes arising to be dealt with by the courts.

Collective bargaining and disputes

According to available data, the issue of respecting employees’ privacy in general, and specifically in relation to the use of new technologies at the workplace, has not been the subject of collective bargaining. Instead, it is considered an issue of individual labour relations.

The statistical yearbooks issued by the Ministry of Justice (Ministerstvo spravodlivosti Slovenskej republiky, MS SR) do not provide any information on the incidence of labour disputes related to employees’ privacy at the workplace. According to information obtained from some enterprises, the issue of respecting employees’ privacy in relation to the use of internet and email at the workplace is not at present considered a priority. Although some cases do exist where the use of internet and email was the subject of disciplinary proceedings, these cases were settled without their escalating into labour disputes. There are no known cases of an employee being dismissed on these grounds.

Attitudes of social partners

Employer representatives contend that respect for employees’ privacy in relation to internet and email usage at the workplace is not an issue that employers are paying particular attention to at present. In their opinion, more serious problems exist which need to be solved. This topic is managed within the framework of a company management’s competency in issuing internal labour rules. Multinational companies operating in Slovakia usually apply procedures in this area, which are used throughout the entire corporation. To date, employers have not expressed a need to regulate this issue through special labour legislation, and no labour disputes between employees and management have emerged so far in relation to employees’ privacy at the workplace. Nor is there any information available on specific initiatives of employers aimed at dealing with this issue in Slovakia.

The issue of employees’ privacy at the workplace is not a topic that trade union representatives have specifically dealt with. According to the trade unions, the existing regulations for respecting employees’ privacy in relation to the use of new ICT is considered to be satisfactory. At present, the trade unions are not obliged under work practices to develop any special initiatives for regulations in this sphere.

Commentary

According to available data from the employers and trade unions representatives, along with the MPSVR SR and several enterprises, the issue of respecting employees’ privacy in relation to internet and email usage at the workplace is not considered to be a priority issue at present. Similarly, the social partners do not think that legislative regulation is currently needed.

Given that no serious cases of labour disputes have been reported in this field, it could be assumed that there is no significant imbalance at present between the regulation of employees’ rights to privacy in the workplace and the regulation of their obligations in this regard. However, a number of debates have taken place within the MPSVR SR, which suggest that this issue could become more important in the future and that it would be useful to regulate such matters by way of legislation – for example, in relation to the control of employees’ emails during working hours. However, it does not seem likely that this issue will arise in the immediate future.

Ludovít Cziria and Daniela Moravcíková, Institute for Labour and Family Research

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