Labor

Monitoring workers, transmitting paranoia

Larry Black March 10 1980
Labor

Monitoring workers, transmitting paranoia

Larry Black March 10 1980

Monitoring workers, transmitting paranoia

Labor

Larry Black

There was a time when a Bell operator, sitting at her switchboard at the local exchange, could keep track of most of the gossip in a small town—controlling in her own little way the electronic eavesdropping gadgetry of the day. But now it seems the headset is on the other ear. Michèle Brouillette, a seasoned operator from a downtown Montreal exchange, has what her supervisors call “an attitude problem”—she doesn’t like her job. Her supervisors know this because, when they plug into her switchboard station on their remote monitors, they are able to overhear her complaining to her girl-friends working on either side. Later in the week, they’ll have her into the office for a talk about her attitude problem, and maybe suggest she ease off on those late-night parties, or work out that squabble between her husband and her brother.

A veteran librarian who works in CP Rail’s computer centre in Montreal was surprised to sit down at his desk one day last summer and find a closed-circuit TV camera “staring me right in the eye. It just rotated back and forth in front of me all day long.” CP installed the cameras originally for security reasons, training them on the doors giving access to the centre. But eventually some lenses were directed right on the work

area, allowing junior supervisors to stand, electronically, over the shoulders of their staff without the usual scowls and protests. The cameras were redirected after the union threatened to take the matter to arbitration, “but it was damn humiliating while it lasted,” says the librarian.

Working with the disturbing sensation that someone, somewhere, is watching you bite your nails or is listening in on your coffee-break chatter is creating a national paranoia. Closedcircuit TV and electronic eavesdropping, even taken together, might not add up to the omnipresent telescreens that George Orwell predicted would see and hear everything in the nightmare world of 1984. But the proliferation of TV and other snooping apparatus, especially in security-conscious establishments such as banks, retail stores and warehouses, is scaring people other than gloom-anddoom futurologists. A study commissioned by the Ontario labor ministry last year estimated that several thousand firms in that province were employing some sort of surveillance equipment and reported that the trend is “growing rapidly.”

This increasing interest among managers in keeping an electronic eye on their employees parallels a renaissance of the more conventional means of guarding property and product. Effi-

ciency-conscious companies are reinstalling punch clocks and issuing ID badges to staff for everything from after-hours access to offices to controlling who pays for the coffee creamer this week. Public visitors to buildings increasingly are obliged to produce identification, sign in with security guards and even wear prominent badges, such as the little circular tabs issued to all visitors to The Chronicle-Herald in Halifax.

Bank tellers and other employees who handle valuable goods all day under the covetous eye of the public often welcome the protection afforded by precautions like TV. But others—the most vocal being Canada’s postal workers—suggest the newfound obsession among employers for elaborate electronic security systems is born of a desire to step up rates of production and—in the case of the post office—to intimidate militant union members. André Kolompar, a 24year-old mail handler at Toronto’s Gateway bulk-mail centre, is watched from the moment he walks through the plant’s heavily guarded doors until he punches out with a plasticized computer punch card which bears his social insurance number. Catwalks and observation galleries ring the work area and a TV camera sweeps across the plant floor tirelessly all day. “The bit about security is just a lot of crap,” says Kolompar. “Sure the mails have to be safe— the floor security there before they introduced the cameras would have made some prison guards jealous. But you can’t ask a guy to surrender his human dignity for a job.” His feeling is reinforced by the Ontario labor ministry study, which said the effects of sur-

veillance on employees could include “increased psychological stress, loss of privacy, reduced sense of personal dignity, and strained relations with supervisors.”

The demands of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers for the removal of the inefficient punch badge system and TV probably will get more public airing than most contract beefs because of an important arbitration award in a security-versus-privacy dispute last May in Toronto. Ronald Ellis, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, ordered the owners of the Puretex Knitting mill to remove five TV cameras from the factory’s production area—including one that beamed directly at the door to the women’s washroom. He described their use for monitoring employees as “seriously offensive in human terms.” But Ellis’ decision, with its references to Orwell and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and the ensuing rash of ephemeral private members’ bills in the Ontario legislature, only underlined the sad fact that, in Canada, there is no such thing as a common law ban on bigbrother-like surveillance.

Three of Canada’s western provinces—British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba—have had some form of privacy legislation for some years, but only a single case—one which had no application to the workplace— has ever been heard under their provisions. Last year, Manitoba amended its laws to ban the use of any type of truthtesting on job applicants in the private sector after a mother of four, looking for janitorial work at a Winnipeg rollerskating rink, refused to be strapped up to a polygraph and grilled about her personal life. Lie detectors, along with their even less reliable cousins, voice stress analysers, are making a big comeback among untrusting employers in the United States, where one enterprising electronics firm has plans to market a $29.95 model that you can wear like a wristwatch.

Pre-employment testing, perhaps the newest twist to the job surveillance trend, also includes handwriting analysis and psychological testing, which increasingly are employed to weed out undesirable, or sometimes simply less submissive, job candidates. A recent series of articles in The New York Times uncovered perhaps the ultimate pre-employment test: several petrochemical corporations in the United States have been genetically testing job seekers to determine their vulnerability to diseases caused by exposure to highly toxic substances. The tests, performed in contravention of civil rights legislation, are used to exclude those most likely to be affected by hazardous working conditions—apparently a cheaper proposition than cleaning them up. 0