Thursday, 25 May 2023
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
This is a fairly straightforward issue. I would just like to say in advance that I was not advised that the Minister or a representative from his Department would not be available. I cannot stress enough that I do not mean this to be in any way disrespectful to the Minister of State but my understanding was that, if someone from the Department would not be here, I would be informed.
I am quite happy to hear the reply. I emphasise that this is not meant to be disrespectful because the Minister of State is here. I do not want to be giving out to the person who turned up about the person who did not but I do want it recorded that this is not ideal.
I will start by thanking the Financial Services Union, FSU, for the work it is doing in this area and Dr. Michelle O'Sullivan for her research. We all know that surveillance of workers is not new. We have had punching in and punching out since the start of the industrial revolution. People have been recording their time in and time out on their phones. I used to do it myself when I worked in a union. However, in the post-pandemic world the nature and scale of this technological surveillance has increased massively. It was described by John O'Connell, the general secretary of the FSU, when he appeared before the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment this week, as being akin to social media, which is something that took off very fast and got ahead of us. Now we are scrabbling behind it to try to put in place checks and balances. It moved very rapidly.
This surveillance of workers has moved very rapidly, partly because more workers are working remotely, but even before Covid and the change in work it created, it had been growing at an alarming rate. The surveillance has reached new levels with the development of artificial intelligence, AI, and machine learning technology. There have been reports of the use of AI and machine learning tools to monitor workers' activity and body language through wearable technology and cameras in the workplace to deduce performance, attention, focus and whether they are sad, stressed, happy and so forth. The data provided to managers are beyond terrifying. Several members of the committee referenced George Orwell's work Nineteen Eighty-Fourwhen we were discussing this. There is something somewhat dystopian about the way workers can be monitored.
In 2021, I raised these concerns with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and I was told that these matters are not covered by employment rights laws or employment terms law. New research from the FSU has shed significant light on the practice of technological surveillance. This research found that a quarter of respondents reported that their employer had increased data collection on their work since they started remote working and over half felt that surveillance work was a violation of privacy. This has to be considered in light of the fact that productivity was not going down. Productivity remained the same. To me, the best way to assess if workers are in fact doing their job is to determine whether the output is still the same. If the output is still the same, why does an employer need to know what their heart rate was at 2 o'clock in the afternoon or if they were excessively blinking or whatever it is? This technology monitors people's eyes and heart rate.
Two thirds of those surveyed felt that surveillance was demoralising and indicated that it increased their stress levels. That is fairly self-explanatory. If people feel they are being watched in that oppressive way, it will increase their stress levels. We cannot adopt a wait-and-see policy. That was done with social media and regulating big technology and look at where we landed. Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that in America, the White House is hosting a forum for workers whose employers use automated systems to monitor them. They are planning a broader effort to ask Americans what priorities their government should pursue regarding AI in terms of new regulation on emerging workplace technologies. I would welcome the views of the Minister of State on that.
If a Deputy puts forward a Topical Issue and has done work on it, in the interests of fairness, he or she should be informed if the relevant Minister cannot take the matter. I just wanted to state that.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. This issue arises in relation to the report produced by the Financial Services Union on employee experiences of technological surveillance in financial services, which was published in April. The Minister has noted the recommendations in the report. The report suggests that the concerns of employees around technological surveillance can be addressed in two ways, namely, through collective bargaining between employers and employee representatives and through statutory regulation.
With regard to collective bargaining, it has been the consistent policy of successive Irish Governments to support the development of an institutional framework facilitating a voluntary system of industrial relations, premised upon freedom of contract and freedom of association. This system has served us well over the decades and there is an extensive range of statutory provisions in place to provide legislative support for a voluntary system of industrial relations. The freedom of association and the right to organise and bargain collectively are also guaranteed in a number of international instruments the State has ratified and which it is, therefore, bound to uphold under international law.
Statutory regulation of technical surveillance in the workplace falls under the terms of general data protection regulation, GDPR, and the 2018 Data Protection Act, which have significantly increased employers' obligations and responsibilities in relation to how they collect, use and protect personal data. The Data Protection Commission, DPC, is the national independent authority responsible for upholding the fundamental right of individuals to have their personal data protected. The DPC is the Irish supervisory authority for the GDPR, and also has functions and powers related to other important regulatory frameworks, including the Irish e-privacy regulations of 2011 and the EU directive known as the law enforcement directive. Any employee may request the DPC to enforce his or her rights in relation to data protection.
Trade unions may raise issues of non-compliance with GDPR or data protection legislation with employers, or may raise their members’ concerns with regard to workplace surveillance as part of collective bargaining. If parties cannot agree, it is open to them to use the industrial relations dispute resolution mechanisms operated by the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court.
I agree with the Deputy. Technology is moving on so rapidly, at a frightening pace. It is important that the Deputy has raised this issue.
I want to make it very clear that I also thank the Minister of State for being here. I do not want to give out to the person who did turn up about the people who did not. I thank him very much for being here.
I appreciate the explanation about industrial relations and how they work. I have some small knowledge of that myself. As matters stand, however, they cannot deal with this issue. The GDPR protections in place are not enough. This is happening at a frightening pace. The impact it is having on workers was outlined by the FSU in its report. It is incredibly demoralising for workers to think that their every movement is being watched because, at the end of the day, their output and productivity are what matters and there are ways of measuring those. The difficulty with this is that workers believe the surveillance is there, because the technology is all around them, but they do not know where this information is being stored or how it is being handled. They do not know either if it is going to be used against them in a situation where they might apply for a promotion or if they were involved in a disciplinary procedure.
I respect the Minister of State's point about this issue being included in collective agreements. It is important, and that can be done, but we have a shockingly low level of coverage with collective bargaining. It is going to increase at some point in the future but for the moment it is very low, which means these workers do not have the capacity to negotiate those collective agreements. Without that, we need the Government to step in and show leadership. It is very rare in a matter of industrial relations or workers' rights that I would ever cite the US as an example but I am doing so in this instance. The Biden Administration has called in workers and employers that use this type of software and it has begun an open and frank dialogue about where this is all going. It is the kind of dialogue we possibly should have had about social media back when the Minister of State and I were young but did not.
I think we need to grasp that opportunity now.
Maybe the Deputy is. I cannot speak for myself. As I said earlier, Ireland's system of industrial relations is voluntary in nature and responsibility for the resolution of industrial relations issues lies ultimately with employers and workers and their respective representatives, as appropriate. Enterprises and their employees are at liberty to negotiate a form of collective agreement that can provide bespoke arrangements to enhance existing GDPR protections as necessary.
The statutory regulation of technical surveillance in the workplace, that is, the general data protection regulation in the Data Protection Act 2018, has significantly increased employers' obligations and responsibilities regarding how they collect, use and protect personal data. As outlined, any employee may request the Data Protection Commission to enforce his or her rights regarding data protection. The resolution mechanisms provided by the State are also open to trade unions to raise issues of non-compliance with the GDPR or data protection legislation in the workplace.
The recommendations for Government is that the Government should undertake research on the possible legislative changes that may be required to keep pace with technological advances, while ensuring proper regulation of employers' collection and use of data from surveillance functions. Another recommendation is that the Government should also seek the Data Protection Commissioner to be proactive in inspecting employments to ensure adherence to GDPR legislation. The points raised by the Deputy are really important, particularly at a time of full employment in the country. This should not be happening at all but the fact that we must seek this level of compliance is difficult. It is upsetting for workers and it is very valid for the Deputy to raise this here this afternoon.
For the information of Members in terms of process and procedure, where a Deputy tables a Topical Issue to a Minister, that Minister's office is required to contact the Deputy and indicate whether the Minister will or will not be here. As far as Members are concerned, it is disrespectful and unacceptable that this would not happen. If I get a complaint from any Member about that, I will action that complaint.