Dutch court rules video surveillance of teleworkers illegal

Solicited by a US company for telemarketing services, a Dutch man was astonished to discover his employer’s demands to monitor him in his home using a webcam. In response, he sued his employer, a decision by a European court benefiting other EU teleworking citizens.

Like having the room you work in equipped with a permanently working webcam, sensors that “count” how many times you go to the toilet and sensors in your chair that penalise you for any time you leave your “workstation” that exceeds a few minutes. Employers could justify “we pay you, you do what we want on our time”. But where is that red line that no employer should cross?

Well, a US company that decided to adapt the office work experience for the telecommuting scenario also ran into the intransigence of European authorities, with the latter ruling that forcing employees to turn on their webcams to be monitored in their own homes was a violation of human rights.

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Specifically, Chetu’s employer, a Florida company, required employees to keep their webcam on “for 9 hours a day” for the duration of their working hours, sending the video stream using an application installed on a PC used for work purposes. The software also streamed screen content, so that the employer could inspect the work being done at any time. Following a challenge to the excessive means of surveillance, the Dutch employee was dismissed on the spot for “refusal to work” and “insubordination”.

But Dutch court judges disagreed, ruling that “instructions to keep the webcam on are in conflict with respect for employee privacy.” In its verdict, the court also ruled that the imposition of webcam surveillance was a violation of human rights.

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“I do not feel comfortable being monitored for 9 hours a day by a webcam. This is an invasion of my privacy and makes me very uncomfortable. This is why my camera is not turned on,” the court document quotes the anonymous employee’s communication to Chetu. The employee also claims that his work activity was already being monitored through screen sharing, believing that the measure was sufficient to clarify any productivity issues.

Finding the imposed working conditions to be abusive, the Dutch court fined the American company $50,000 and the employee’s legal costs, plus back pay and unused vacation days.

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