Case Report – Workplace surveillance system survives arbitral scrutiny

15 Aug

On July 4th, Arbitrator Craven partially upheld a policy grievance which challenged the expansion of an employer’s in-plant video surveillance system but nonetheless gave a strong endorsement to the employer’s purpose for using video surveillance.

The grievance was about the expansion of a system video cameras in a meat packing plant. The system featured un-monitored, high resolution cameras, some of which were fixed on work areas. It recorded digital images which were retained as long as disk space permitted and apparently not based on a fixed retention period.

Although there was some ambiguity about the purpose of the system, Aribitrator Craven ultimately found that the purpose of the system was, “to investigate plant security, industrial discipline and food safety incidents that come to the Employer’s attention by other means than monitoring the video in real time or viewing or sampling the recordings.” He held this investigatory purpose was legitimate. He also made clear that the employer was not using the cameras to “systematically collect information about employees or to identify occasions for discipline.”

Arbitrator Craven’s distinction between using cameras to support an investigation and using cameras to monitor is strong. He suggests that an investigatory purpose is more likely to be upheld as a legitimate exercise of management rights and less likely to be objectionable because of its intrusiveness. On the intrusiveness issue, he explains:

Indeed, it is a misnomer to describe what the camera system does as ‘observation’ at all. It merely optically, mechanically and electronically collects, transmits and records digital information which does not constitute ‘observation’ until a human observer views the displayed or recorded images. If the cameras continued to operate but no-one viewed the images, we might still describe what was happening as ‘surveillance,’ but surely not as ‘observation.’ It is the potential for observation, not its inevitable realization, that underlies the weak analogy between camera and supervisor. (Compare the characterization of electronic surveillance as ‘inhuman’ (page 30) and indeed ‘fundamentally anti-human (page 29) in Re Puretex Knitting Co. Ltd. and Canadian Textile and Chemical Union (1979) 23 L.A.C. (2d) 14 (Ellis).)

As the Union presents its case, the main argument to the intrusiveness of the video surveillance sys-tem is its capacity for monitoring employees, whether in real time or by systematic subsequent review of the recordings. I accept the Employer’s evidence that it does not monitor employees.

Arbitrator Craven focuses on the use of the cameras rather than their mere presence. Not surprisingly then, he was uncomfortable about the lack of:

  • policy-based restrictions on the use of data (i.e. about the risk of “scope creep”);
  • the absence of a formal data retention rule; and
  • (most interestingly) the absence of rules governing union access to data.

Based on a separate finding that the employer had breached a technological change provision in its collective agreement by not engaging in discussions with the union when it expanded the system, he ordered the employer to meet with the union to engage in discussions, implying that the parties should deal with his concerns by way of mutual agreement.

Cargil Foods, a Division of Cargill Ltd. v. United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Local 633 (Privacy Grievance), [2008] O.L.A.A. No. 393 (Craven) (QL).

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2 Responses to “Case Report – Workplace surveillance system survives arbitral scrutiny”

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  1. Case Report – Arbitrator orders stipulations on use of in-plant video surveillance « All About Information - January 26, 2010

    […] I explained in this post, last July Arbitrator Craven found that the employer had breached a technological change provision […]

  2. Lancaster House panel on monitoring job performance and productivity | All About Information - December 12, 2013

    […] counsel Samantha Lamb, with Sean McGee of Nelligan O’Brien Payne as our chair. I quite like this Cargill Foods case by Arbitrator Craven, in which he distinguishes between omnipresent […]

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