How can we fight for digital rights at work? Interview with Sarah Murphy MS

Elliot Chappell
Mark Drakeford, Keir Dtarmer and Sarah Murphy

“It’s not reinventing the wheel,” Sarah Murphy tells me. The Labour MS, who was elected to the Welsh Parliament for the first time last year, is talking me through her work on how tech is changing our working lives and the digital rights workers should have. None of the arguments are new, she explains: the same old battles over workers’ rights are now simply being fought in the digital arena. “People shouldn’t be asked to be more productive than they are actually capable of,” she says. Nor should they not be placed under “constant surveillance that stresses them out and pushes them into burnout”.

For many, Covid has further blurred the lines between work and home via advances in tech. Office workers certainly saw the pandemic prompt a shift towards remote working, and with that came an array of monitoring technologies to keep tabs on staff. The scary aspect is how unaware and unprepared we are for this invasion of our homes. In 2020, just one third of workers had heard of keystroke monitoring or software allowing employers to use cameras on work computers to tell how much time you spend ‘at your desk’, for example.

The legislation that should protect workers does not scratch the surface. Murphy lists seven pieces of UK legislation that could be relevant. “None of them grapple with this at all, and the stuff that does is far too vague,” she explains. “Even under the Data Protection Act, it still has ‘work out whether the monitoring is justified’. That’s too vague. What do we mean by ‘justified’?” Laws on employment, meanwhile, are “completely out of date” on monitoring, still concerned with use of CCTV cameras when the world has moved onto facial recognition software. But the new Bridgend MS has plans to change all that.

Murphy praises the work of Welsh Labour on working from home policy, including the development of remote working hubs. These hubs are mostly local libraries at the moment, she tells me. But should companies contribute towards funding for libraries where they are effectively using them as office space? “Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s very much where a social partnership model comes in,” the MS replies. “I don’t think it should be falling on the worker, and I don’t think it should be falling on the public purse.”

The social partnership bill currently going through the Senedd needs “a specific section on digital rights and democracy”, she says. It should cover transparency and data protection impact assessments, include an “absolute ban” on biometric data collection in workplaces and schools, and define exactly what ‘justified’ means.

This is not just about one bill, but about any new law being made. “If it’s not directly dealing with this, it is already out of date. It is already obsolete.” Tech in the workplace, or the work-home, cannot be an afterthought. “Digital rights are so crucial – and more and more so – and I would like to see them being seen in that way and prioritised more. That’s what I’m trying to do,” Murphy explains. She is chair of the cross-party group on digital rights and democracy, which recently held its first meeting.

Throughout our interview, Murphy repeatedly brings the discussion back to trade unions. Before entering the Senedd, Murphy worked on research for the Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University and worked on a UK-wide basis with unions on how tech collides with workers’ rights. An “influx of technology” has tipped the balance between employees and employers “overnight”, she explains. “That’s what trade unions are there to oversee and to contribute to – to make sure workers have that voice.”

But the tech itself is making it harder for unions to organise and to represent their members. She offers a couple of examples. “Now, going into workplaces, you usually have to swipe something, you usually have some sort of digital element to let you into the building. So that prohibits union reps being able to go in. The TUC has also reported that there are facial recognition cameras in workplaces where they could point out a trade union rep being in the building.” It is not just the tech but also the isolation of workers that is inevitable with remote working. “The organising is really, really difficult when people are far-flung and spread out.”

It is not all doom and gloom, however, as Murphy believes it “doesn’t have to be like this”. In Canada, workers must be notified if subjected to random or continuous surveillance. Finland has legislated that employers have a limited right to monitor emails and computer usage. In Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden, employers are not allowed to look at emails marked as private without permission. And there are apps that “empower the workers”, the MS reports, letting people log how much work they are doing, how many hours they have worked and any health and safety concerns – to be shared confidentially with their union.

“There is good stuff that can come from this, so it’s not all bad,” Murphy tells me. Whether we can harness those positives comes down to the same fight that the unions have been waging on behalf of workers since their inception.

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