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There is the Big Brother -
Workplace Control and Workforce Surveillance

Lee, Ji-young, President
Labor News Production

Presented at April 28, 2007
Labor's Voices 2007 Conference New York

George Orwell’s SF novel is not scientific fiction any longer. High technologies are used as a weapon of capital to control the workplace and watch over workers. In spite of the downturn in the IT industry, the market for electrical surveillance systems of workers enjoys an unprecedented boom, as a goose that lays golden eggs.

With the development of the high-tech industry, the surveillance costs less and less, is easier to use than before, and the surveillance is implemented in a covert way. The capitalists introduced a variety of surveillance system, without the knowledge of workers or against their will, on the pretext that the system will protect workers. However, the real intrusion is simple: to control the workers.

In one survey of June 2006 over the situation of worker surveillance system in 207 enterprises, 89.9% of surveyed companies used more than two electronic devices for workforce surveillance. Almost 100% of large enterprises with more than 1,000 employees and those in the health care industry make use of the surveillance systems. Especially, the surveillance through CCTVs is spreading rapidly, and in35% cases of all, the CCTVS are located not just at worksites, but rest lounges and rest rooms, as well.

Now I’ll present the experiences and examples from South Korean workers about how these surveillance systems are used and what impact the workforce surveillance has on workers.

1. Surveillance through CCTV Camera

As cheap moving camera technology spreads widely, the camera surveillance has increased drastically at the workplace level. The employers claim the necessity of camera surveillance for the preventing possible thefts or equipment destruction, for the customer services and for the prevention of dangers.

However, from the workers’ point of view, the surveillance is about the dignity and rights of workers. The workers whose every move is under surveillance suffer from serious psychological pains, and occasionally, surveillance causes industrial accidents.

And not a few workers are disciplined or dismissed for the records of the surveillance cameras. As the scenes of recorded tapes are cited as a ground for discipline and dismissal, the surveillance is called a new mode of labor repression in South Korea.

Take one example. High-tech RC Korea is a company, which produces the controller devices for airplanes and helicopters. The worker A is something to do first when he gets to work. He puts a black tape on the CCTV camera, and blocks his workspace with a sheet of newspaper. But when he finishes his work, his manager takes away the black tape, and when he returns, he put a tape on it again. This tussle of taping is going on repeatedly.

Assembly line workers complain of unstable senses, nervousness, headaches, and so on, for the their obsession that they are constantly being watched over. And, as those workers who visit the union office are also recognized, non-unionized workers feel it burdensome to visit the office even for personal business. They have to be very careful over the watching eyes of the management.

The CCTV cameras were deployed when the dispute between the management and the workers was so acute. The cameras were set at such places as near the union office, front yard, and the entrance, creating the suspicion, on the part of workers, of their function as watching over workers and their union. Actually, when the company initiated the legal suits on the unionists, the management used the videotapes of CCTV as evidences for its legal actions.

Furthermore, the management introduced the electronic card system to control the workforce. These cards are used even when they go to the restroom and get back to the workplace, which means that the management knows how many times workers go to bathroom. Thus, the trade union has waged anti-surveillance struggle since 2002.

Another worse example is one social service institution in Daegu. When the union was formed, the employer deployed unionized workers at the second floor site to watch over them. And he edited the videotapes of CCTV in order to create the image of a worker hitting a old woman, distributing this edited version of the videotape as a means to attack the workers union. The worker who was on the tape was shocked and is suffering from psychological pains.

2. Surveillance of Computer Network

In South Korea, employers usually block the communication network in the period of collective negotiation on wages and collective agreement, especially in time of strikes, thereby restricting trade union rights to organize and strike. These kind of illegalities happened at strikes in Lotte Hotel, Asiana Airline, Yeocheon NCC, Korean Power Plant, and so forth.

In 2000, when power plant workers went into strike, the employers blocked workers access, from their offices and even homes, to the union¹s web page, and other websites of labor and social movement organizations by blocking IP addresses of each server. The employers said that as the strike was illegal, it was legitimate to block the access to the trade union¹s homepage.

Above cases have something in common: in time of struggle, as the websites of the trade unions are used as the space for communication and organizing, the employers block the communication network to sterilize workers struggle and disrupt the legitimate union activities.

However, in contrast with the technological development, there is no adequate law or regulation that can be applicable for unjust blocking of communication network by the employers or management. Taking advantage of this loophole, the management classifies the intra-company network as a private property, and disrupts just activities of the trade unions.

Furthermore, employers detect and watch over the IPs. At the end of last year, at Electronics and Communications Institute in Daedeok Research Complex, the management dismissed two middle managers, for some postings on internal bulletins of the institution, which criticized the director of the institute. The management detected the IP and found the location, but failed to identify who wrote the posting. Thus, the institute management dismissed the middle managers as a disciplinary measure.

3. Electronic ID Card, or IC chipped Card like RF Card, Smart Card

The electronic ID card is used as part of workforce surveillance. In 1998, at Jeonju Plant of Hyundai Motors, the company distributed the RF cards to workers for them to carry with themselves. This RF card uses the radio frequency wave for automatic recognition system, and the card reader can gather information on workers attendance, locations, and moves. The reading coverage can expand over 50 meters, and the reader devices are invisible for workers. When the readers are widely deployed, every move of all the workers are recorded and watched over.

Take the example of a trade union branch of Korean Scientific and Technological workers union. Every employee uses IC card for identification and entrance. The card is not just a key for entrance, but also a devise to record all the information like attendance, coming and exiting, and movement. In June 2002, the Cyber Investigation Team of Police Administration searched the entrance records of IC card of unionists who visited the 13th floor, in order to investigate some posting on the website of the trade union. Afterwards, most of unionists feel uncomfortable with going to the union office at 13th floor.

4. EMR, ERP(Enterprise Resource Planning)

In hospitals, serious things are happening. Under the phrase of Hospital without Charts, EMR (Electrical Medical Records) system is being introduced. According to its logic, without charts, the quality of medicare services will improve, the work of nursing will be easier, and the patient-centered medicare system will be established. But is this real?

The answer is no. First of all, the information of patients leaks. Under EMR, all the information of patients is concentrated, and the security of personal information is at stake. But the hospitals failed to establish the information protection devices, because of high cost.

Secondly, the work intensity of nurses became stronger. According to a survey by Seoul National University Hospital, the introduction of the EMR has caused serious problems. 56.1% of respondents answered that metal fatigue increased, and 52.2% of them physical fatigue. The proportion of those who answered that stress increased was 55.1%, and 49.3% answered that occupational diseases and industrial accidents increased.

After all, the work environment at hospitals is getting close to the worst. A series of sudden death of nurses has something to do with this worsened working condition. And furthermore, as the electronification replaces workforce, there is growing job insecurity. The worst thing is that under the name of hospitals introduce ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) under the name of ERP.

The example of Jeonbuk National University Hospital shows the worst management and service for patients. These patients exit just for the hospital’s profiteering.

Case 1: the disinfection for operation patients is once two days instead of once a day, a tag of the price is attached for every care unit, and the sheet for serious patients is changed not once a day, but once couple of days.

Case 2: Throwaway items are used again after being washed and disinfected again.

And each section set the signal lights for targets so that managers can check it every day.

5. Navigating Devices

With the development of cell phone and telephone technology, the navigating program through the cell phone sophisticated, increasing the danger of the user¹s personal information exposed. By using satellites, the precision of navigating technology will be enhanced further.

Take the case of Samsung SDI’s illegal navigating. At that time, more than 20 people were located, including Samsung SDI workers, dismissed workers of Samsung Electronics, a wife of industrial accident victim in Busan Plant of Samsung SDI, who were in uncomfortable relations with Samsung.

Strong suspicion was raised that Samsung Headquarters is involved in the control and surveillance of workers, violating workers¹ basic rights. The No-Union policy of Samsung is never unrelated with this everyday surveillance and control on their workforce. The very advanced technology of Samsung is, first of all, used for the control and surveillance of their own employees.

Next, take the case of Korea Telecom¹s surveillance on KT marketing team. The surveillance of KT management took the form of following behind and locating. Added was the discriminative measure for operation activities. 80 of sales workers in Busan KT were those workers who had rejected the voluntary resignation in 2003.

The company discriminated them by not assigning the sales region unlike other employees, and not giving the business credit card for sales promotion. Moreover, the company provided less amount of subsidy to the cell phone fare for sales promotion


According to the KCTU (Korean Confederation of Trade Unions) documentation on information and communication issues, the introduction of surveillance and control system is done in the period of the union building and disputes, as a means to destroy workers unity and their organization. This is proven by the fact that more than 80% of the consultations of this kind were done just when the union was formed or just before workers staged a strike.

According to a survey on the workers recognition of the surveillance system, 34.3% of workers responded that with the introduction of surveillance they felt "increased fatigues, psychological and physical" and 25.7% of them answered that they had "worse heath problem."

As the present government of South Korea publicized itself as "an electronic government", the level of surveillance on workers is surprising. However, the control and surveillance on workers is one of the key issues on the working conditions, and also related with the fundamental rights of workers in general.

Thus, workers should not be confused over the debates on whether it is on the agenda of collective agreement or not, and whether it is possible to stage a strike over this issue or not. Basically, when the state and capital justifies it from the aspect of managerial rights and the right of property, it is urgently necessary to fight back with more aggressive argumentation on this issue, elevating it into a critical concern of the society as a whole.

At workplace level, the problem of workforce surveillance is no easy, and no royal road to solve the problem. It’s not easy to organize a struggle against the surveillance, and the reason is quite simple: workers don’t know well, except for the visible surveillance like the CCTV watching. Moreover, the invisible surveillance will be increasing.

As the electronic surveillance technology develops further and the integration of unlimitedly stored information is made possible, all the information of workers will be function a powerful means to control workers at every dimension. Therefore, it is best to respond instantly to even small changes to stop the establishment of surveillance equipment.

Of course, at the workplace level, immediate direct action can happen, as was the case of Mando Industry in 2000, where workers destroyed the surveillance devices. It’s a new Luddism, in some sense, but basically workers’ defensive actions at the workplace level. However, the struggle should develop from anti-surveillance campaign toward counter-surveillance movement by workers themselves.