UNI highlights on-line rights at work

Union Network International (UNI) has in recent years been campaigning on the issue of the protection of workers' 'on-line rights' at work, relating to the use of e-mail and the internet. Notably, it has recently issued a code of practice dealing with employees’ and employers’ rights and duties in this area. The code covers trade union communications, non-business communications, monitoring and surveillance, and the conditions for use of electronic facilities at work.

Union Network International (UNI), which brings together white-collar and private service sector workers' trade unions from around the world (including unions in the information technology sector), has been active in the area of employees’ 'on-line rights' for a number of years. It launched an On-line rights for on-line workers campaign in March 1998, at a time when e-mail and internet usage were spreading rapidly in businesses. The campaign stresses that trade unions and their representatives need to have access to electronic means of communication and that employees need to have access to these media.

Since 1998, UNI has continued its work in this area, by means such as the publication of a model 'electronic facilities agreement' for use by companies and trade unions - which is said to have been the basis for similar agreements concluded in countries such as Austria, the Netherlands and the UK. UNI states that its activities in this field have attracted the attention of bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the European Commission. In November 2000, UNI hosted a conference in Brussels on the legal and practical issues raised by the use of electronic media at work.

UNI warned in October 2002 that electronic communications are a 'time bomb' for industrial relations, as employees can easily fall foul of written and unwritten rules governing the use of the internet and e-mail at work. UNI points to the results of a UK survey, issued on 3 September 2002 and carried out by the solicitors KLegal and Personnel Today magazine, which found that, in responding companies, disciplinary cases for e-mail and internet abuse over the past year exceeded those for dishonesty, violence and health and safety breaches put together.

Gerhard Rohde of UNI stated: 'In too many companies there are no fair rules and in many others the rules are just not known. We want employers to sit down with their workers and their unions to agree fair rules which give on-line rights to on-line workers - but protect employers against abuses. Used appropriately, the exploitation of electronic facilities like e-mail and the internet improve work efficiency and facilitate new ways of working.'

UNI code of practice

In order to aid discussion of these issues, UNI has produced a code of practice concerning on-line rights at work. It was drawn up based on the contributions made at its November 2000 conference on the issue, and on the experience of companies and unions that have already implemented electronic facilities agreements.

In a preamble to the code of practice, UNI notes that although electronic facilities have a great number of benefits in terms of enhancing work, their use also raises legal, ethical and managerial issues for both companies and employee representatives.

From a trade union point of view, there are implications for individual privacy in terms of communications. Further, UNI notes that commercial web browser software is being designed with filters that block employees' access to trade union websites, a development which is worrying for unions.

From an employer point of view, there is a fear that employees may take personal advantage of e-mail and internet facilities, to the detriment of their work. Further, employers worry that they may be held legally responsible for the content of private e-mails.

UNI states, therefore, that its code of practice is designed to address these issues and 'establish an internationally recognised yardstick of what constitutes good practice'.

The code covers four main issues:

  • trade union communication;
  • non-business communication;
  • monitoring and surveillance of communication; and
  • conditions for use of electronic facilities.

Trade union communication

The code states that works councils and/or trade unions and their representatives should have the right to access and use enterprise electronic facilities for works council/trade union purposes, both internally and externally. This includes the right to send relevant information to all employees. It also states that employees should have the right to use enterprise electronic facilities to communicate with their trade unions and/or works council and their representatives.

UNI states that this part of the code extends to electronic means of communication the provisions on workers’ representatives' facilities contained in the 1971 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 135 and Recommendation No. 143. It notes further that the nature of communication has now changed, with employee representatives in different branches of a multinational company now needing to be able to cooperate and coordinate work across international borders. Moreover, an increasing number of employees are now working from home, from remote telecentres or on the move.

Non-business communication

The code states that employees should be permitted to use enterprise electronic facilities for non-business purposes, both internally and externally, provided that this is not detrimental to their work responsibilities.

Monitoring and surveillance of communication

The code states that the employer should be obliged to undertake not to subject employees’ use of the enterprise's electronic facilities to clandestine surveillance and monitoring.

Communication should be subject to surveillance and monitoring only if:

  • this is permitted by collective agreement;
  • the employer is legally obliged to do so; or
  • the employer has reasonable reason to believe that an employee has committed a criminal offence or serious disciplinary offence.

Access to surveillance and monitoring records relating to individual employees should take place only in the presence of a trade union representative or a representative selected by the employee.

UNI states that these provisions take into account a number of recent international initiatives such as: a 1996 ILO code of practice on the protection of workers’ personal data; a 1989 Council of Europe recommendation on the protection of personal data used for employment purposes; provisions of the Council of Europe's European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; and a number of recent European Court of Human Rights judgments which suggest that telecommunications, either by telephone or the internet, should be protected by a right to privacy.

Further, UNI notes that the 1995 EU Directive (95/46/EC) on data protection also has relevance, in that electronic monitoring in the workplace can be treated as a form of collecting or processing personal data.

Conditions for use of electronic facilities

The code lists a number of conditions to which employees’ right to use enterprises' electronic facilities should be subject:

  • communication must be lawful and not include defamatory or libellous statements;
  • enterprises' electronic facilities shall not be used as a means of sexually harassing other members of staff or spreading offensive comments based on an individual’s gender, age, sexuality, race, disability or appearance, or knowingly to visit websites promoting pornography, racism or intolerance; and
  • the employer can require a disclaimer when employees are communicating internally and externally, making clear that the views expressed are those of the author alone and not those of the enterprise.

UNI states that it hopes that this code will clarify the issues surrounding electronic communication at the workplace. Mr Rohde stresses that: 'the key is getting agreed rules between employers and workers and their unions - and for those rules to be clearly spelled out and fairly implemented.'

Commentary

Electronic communications - primarily use of e-mail and the internet - at work is an area which has grown massively over the past decade. As a consequence, both employers and employees are having to deal with the implications of this as regards privacy, monitoring and legal liability. The UNI code of practice may provide useful guidance to both employers and employees and their representatives in terms of how to approach the issue to the satisfaction of all. (Andrea Broughton, IRS)

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