Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Can They Do That?: Retaking Our Fundamental Rights in the Workplace by Lewis Maltby

Working for a large company can be stressful, but now, employers are making it more stressful on their employees by monitoring them in many and varied ways- even ways that may seem something like a gift at first- say, when an employer gives the employee a cellphone or computer. Great, you may think, a free gift I don't have to pay for!

But unfortunately, many employers are using the GPS devices in the cellphones to track what their employees are doing and where they are going, even if they aren't on the job. Worse is when they do that and don't tell their employees that they are doing so- or when they install keyloggers inside that "free gift" computer that tells them everything you do on it- even if you never use it for work at all.

The worst part comes when the employee disagrees with their employer on an area not related to work- politics or religion, or "morals", and then the employer uses the information to fire the employee, or ask what they were doing at such and such place on such and such date. For the worker, this can be a double blow- not being aware that the employer is spying, and then having their actions sprung on them.

Sometimes, it isn't the employer, per se, but other workers at the same company. One woman was fired because her employer found out her sister died of breast cancer from the IT guys who were reading her e-mail. Not because the employer wanted them to, but on their own, because they thought it was a fun thing to do. And when her employer found out, she got fired, because her risk of breast cancer was greater since she had someone in her family who had it, and they fired her because she could conceivably cost the company's health plan more money.

Now, you might think that this is against the law, and it is... but only in some states. In other states, you would be completely out of luck suing your employer because of it. Worse are that some companies make employees go to mediation before a lawyer, and the mediator may be secretly siding with the company, not the employer. Why? If the mediation company costs the employer too much money, the employer has no reason to use them any more.

Employee mediation is another problem. Most often, "mediation committees" are composed of upper management, which has little sympathy with lower-level employees. And just like the mediation companies, they will support the employer, not the employee, who may have no other recourse.

But that's not the only way employers can infringe on the privacy rights of employees. Obvious or hidden cameras keeping watch on employees at all times, just to see if they are working, or how hard they are working. All of this infringes on the rights of employees, but what can we, as employees, do about it? Is there any way we can reclaim our fundamental rights as human beings?

Yes, but it won't be easy, and mainly, it involves laws being passed. You can try not to work for companies that do such things, but that often isn't a good solution, especially in these troubled economic times- oftentimes, if that is the only job available, there will be more people wanting the job, and they can just offer it to someone else.

In short, without changing the laws, there really is very little that we can do. In the case of employer-given computers and cellphones, don't use them for private things. If you can afford one, get a computer of your own and use that for things you wish to remain private. Don't use company e-mail for private business or messages. Get a personal e-mail account to use for private e-mails, and don't tell your employer the private e-mail account name.

With Cellphones, there is little you can do. The employer can require you to carry it no matter where you are, and if you leave it at home, or disable the GPS tracking software, you could get fired for destroying employer property or for not following orders. At best, don't use your employer-given cellphone for calls you wish to remain private. The same for texts.

This book was incredibly interesting, but not necessarily in a way that will make employees feel good about themselves. In fact, it was horrifying to see how many ways you can be screwed over in the workplace, and not even for major stuff, but for the pettiest things, like who you support for political office, or going to a club when your employer doesn't approve of drinking.

Of course, smoking is becoming less about protecting other employees from secondhand smoke and protecting the employer from having to pay out for any employee that gets lung cancer. In the same vein, employers are trying to get employees to eat healthier to cut down on the costs of health care- to the point where, at some time in the future, if you refuse to eat healthier, you may lose your job.

This is an important book to read for any employee. Maltby may have few ways to better a job you already have, but he also lists what to look for, and possible remedies you may have against employers who violate your fundamental rights in the workplace. And in the meantime, we can work for better laws to protect employees, which are desperately needed. Depressing, but Highly Recommended.

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