Amendments to workplace privacy laws will expose working people to covert surveillance

UnionsACT has serious concerns that changes to the Workplace Privacy Act due to be debated on Thursday in the ACT Assembly will give undue powers to employers and insurance companies to spy on workers outside the workplace.

The bill, introduced by Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury, will expose public and private sector workers to being covertly spied upon by employers and insurance companies.

This is a serious and unjustified erosion of privacy and rights of working people.

The amendment would allow employers or insurance companies who had “reasonable belief” that their employee had engaged in “unlawful activity” to secure a warrant from a magistrate to conduct covert surveillance. The thresholds for “reasonable belief” and “unlawful activity” are worrying low and vague.

The threshold for law enforcement agencies to conduct similar covert surveillance requires a suspicion of serious criminal activity. The lower threshold proposed in this bill would allow private employers and insurance companies wide powers to intrude into the private lives of workers for minor, non-criminal matters.

The involvement by the Human Rights Commission and the Assembly Oversight Committee was narrowly focused on the privacy rights of third parties, for example children, rather than the rights of the worker being spied upon.

There is currently uncertainty in the existing law as to whether employers are legally entitled to spy on their employees. Rather than close the loophole and ensure working people have their privacy protected, the Minister is exposing the privacy of every worker in every workplace in the ACT.

The following quotes are attributable to Alex White, Secretary of UnionsACT:

“It is deeply troubling that this bill is being pushed forward, seemingly at the behest of a handful of big insurance companies.

“We have already seen insurance companies misuse covert surveillance powers in other states. The result is injured workers who have been harassed and victimised by insurance companies.

“The enormous scope of this change, and the serious invasion of privacy, should give the Minister and the Government cause to pause and consult more widely.

“If there is criminal activity, then the appropriate agency to investigate is the police. The Government should not be deputising businesses and insurance companies to go out and spy on their workforce.

“The right to privacy of over 160,000 workers in Canberra are being exposed for what the Minister concedes would be fewer than ten instances a year.

“If this bill proceeds, UnionsACT intends to ensure that working people are aware that their right to privacy has been seriously compromised by Mr Rattenbury.”