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Employer accused of “Big Brother tactics” after sleeping employees dismissed

18th May, 2011

An international steel-making company has been accused of using “Big Brother tactics” and “MI5-style surveillance” after dismissing 13 employees who were caught sleeping at work. The allegations of Orwellian subterfuge came about after the employees were captured on secret cameras sleeping through parts of their shift in mess room areas at the company’s site in Port Talbot. The company denies any wrongdoing and insists that it was duty-bound to take action against its slumbering staff members.

Tata Steel (“Tata”) is Europe’s second largest steel producer and employs approximately 80,000 employees across five continents. The issue at the Port Talbot site was first brought to Tata’s attention by a whistleblower, who reported the alleged sleeping on the job. As a consequence, Tata elected to install a number of tiny cameras into light fittings, smoke alarms and other fixtures, in order to monitor the employees’ actions. In December 2010, 17 riggers involved were shown the evidence and 13 were subsequently dismissed.

The trade union, Community, represented the employees involved and successfully argued in four of the cases that the evidence produced was not conclusive, thereby saving four of the employees from dismissal. In addition, one of the dismissed employees is expected to be supported by the union at an appeal tribunal later this year.

Community union’s national officer, Roy Rickhuss, said that the union was “extremely disappointed at the turn of events” and accused Tata of adopting “Big Brother tactics” and “MI5-style surveillance”. Mr Rickhuss stated whoever made the decision to film the employees using covert cameras had no idea or concept of the industrial relations that had been built up over a number of years in the Port Talbot plant. Allegedly, Tata informed Mr Rickhuss that the decision was made by its London-based operation.

Mr Rickhuss described the decision as being short-sighted and potentially damaging to working relationships between the Company and its employees going forward. He said that Tata faced challenges in order to restore the relationship with its employees and that those challenges would best be met through the strong links between the union and the company.

Tata defended its position through spokesman Robert Dangerfield, who stated that no employer could ignore allegations of such malpractice. Mr Dangerfield said that the whistleblower’s allegation of a “systemic malpractice – sleeping on the job – in one part of the plant had to be investigated and its veracity checked”.

Dismissing allegations that the company had overstepped the mark in secretly filming the employees, Mr Dangerfield said that the surveillance was the only practical way to gather objective evidence to establish the scope of the problem. Mr Dangerfield added “This is the real world of a potentially hazardous workplace with workers scattered over a plant covering 12 square miles – not a science fiction fantasy like Big Brother”.

Despite Mr Dangerfield’s comments, Tata are understood to have given a commitment to review the policy of covert surveillance, and will be meeting with union representatives shortly in order to attempt to restore good industrial relations.

The key for employers wishing to use CCTV to monitor employees is trust, meaning that employees should generally be informed in advance of any cameras being installed or monitoring taking place. Consultation should be held with employees and trade unions where relevant about the reasons for installing cameras and the location of cameras. Failure to adequately consult with employees could potentially lead to expensive claims.

For more information on this or any other employment law matter please contact Helen Watson on 01244 405565 or email her here.

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