Under the Employer’s Eye: Electronic Monitoring & Surveillance in Australian Workplaces

by Troy Henderson, Tom Swann and Jim Stanford

Each year the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute conducts a public survey of Australian working hours, as part of our annual “Go Home on Time Day” (GHOTD) initiative. Findings from the survey regarding hours worked, preferences for more or less hours, and the incidence of unpaid overtime are reported in a companion study.

This year, our survey also included a special section focusing on the forms, prevalence, impacts and implications of electronic and digital monitoring and surveillance in Australian workplaces. Our goal was to investigate a secondary dimension of the time pressure facing Australian workers. It is not just that work is being extended into greater portions of our days (through unpaid overtime, the use of mobile phones and computers to reach workers at any time, pressure to not fully utilise annual leave, and similar trends). In addition, even within the work day, time pressure is intensified with the expectation that every moment of work time must be used for productive purposes – an expectation that is increasingly reinforced through omnipresent systems of monitoring, performance measurement, and surveillance. The result of these twin forces is an overall inability for people to escape from the demands of work: neither at the workplace (even for short periods), nor away from it.

Part I of this report begins by describing the main forms of modern electronic monitoring and surveillance (EMS) that have placed more Australian workers “under their employer’s eye.” These methods include the use of location tracking technologies, monitoring of emails and social media content, the “gamification” of work, digital methods of performance monitoring, and even electronic systems for employee discipline and dismissal. Following sections examine the various purposes of modern EMS systems, and the extent of their application. This is followed by a brief description of the legal and regulatory system governing EMS in Australia; current regulations limiting employers’ use of these systems are sparse and inconsistent. The last section of Part I discusses the direct and indirect consequences of these new forms of monitoring and surveillance for workers. It argues that the impact of omnipresent surveillance in workplaces may be contributing to the slower wage growth which has so concerned Australian economists and policy experts in recent years; because it is now easier and cheaper to monitor and “motivate” employees through surveillance and potential discipline, employers feel less pressure to provide positive economic incentives (such as job security, promotion, and higher wages) to elicit loyalty and effort from their workforces.

Part II of the report then reports the findings of our original survey data regarding the forms, extent and impacts of EMS systems in Australian workplaces, and the attitudes of Australian workers towards these technologies and trends. We surveyed 1,459 people between 26 October and 6 November 2018, using an online survey methodology, conducted by Research Now. The sample was nationally representative with respect to gender, age and state and territory.

Full report