A Florida-based software development firm called Chetu provided a perfect example of how an employer in 2022 can take worker surveillance one step too far. Describing an order issued last week, a Dutch court document (translated with Google Translate) explained that it was wrong for the Florida firm to punish a remote Dutch telemarketer for turning off his webcam—and that firing him for doing so actually violated the employee’s human rights.
After the employee (whose name is redacted in the court document) repeatedly refused to turn on his webcam in August, the company terminated his employment abruptly via an email that explained the termination decision in fewer than 10 words. Chetu apparently cited Dutch civil code as supporting its decision, writing to the employee: “Your employment is hereby terminated. Reason: Refusal to work; Insubordination.”
However, the Dutch court last week ultimately disagreed with Chetu’s reading of the Dutch law, deciding that not turning on a webcam isn’t a refusal to work or insubordination. Instead, the employee was rightly and reasonably defending his right to privacy. That’s protected by the European Convention of Human Rights, according to the court order, which quoted, “video surveillance of an employee in the workplace, be it covert or not, must be considered as a considerable intrusion into the employee’s private life.”
Chetu did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.
Pandemic sparks explosion of remote-worker surveillance
This verdict can be viewed as a win for any remote worker anywhere who ever hesitated when their boss asked them to hit record and subject themselves to prolonged surveillance.
As remote work became a default mode for many employees globally through the pandemic, employers began exploring new ways to monitor employee productivity. Demand for employee surveillance technology leapt by 58 percent, Top10VPN reported. This, reported researchers based in Canada and Spain in the National Library of Medicine, was just one part of “an unprecedented COVID-19-induced explosion in digital surveillance” that “has reconfigured power relationships in professional settings.” Current laws, specifically in the European Union, were not prepared to address such “excessive supervision” and data-driven management, researchers warned.
At least, it seems, in the Netherlands, remote workers can now expect to be protected from invalid all-day webcam requests. As a result of the wrongful termination verdict, the court ordered Chetu to withdraw a non-compete clause that limited the former worker’s new employment options. Chetu also had to pay a fine of $50,000, as well as the employee’s back wages, unused vacation time, and court fees.
TechCrunch reported that in Florida, where Chetu is based, there are at-will employment laws that cover Chetu so that the firm can fire any Florida-based employee for any reason that doesn’t violate labor laws. The email that prompted the Dutch-based employee’s firing suggests that the firm did make some attempt to consult Dutch civil code before making their termination decision but seemingly didn’t think to check what’s protected by law under the European Convention of Human Rights.