Big Brother is watching the E-Mail
In Adelaide six call-centre workers employed by the Federal Government's employment agency, Centrelink, have been summarily dismissed for their personal use of the electronic mail system. The reason given for the dismissals is that the communications are said to have included pornographic material. The matter is now being hotly contested by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), with a view to reinstatement of the staff concerned. However, the case raises fundamental issues for workers everywhere, of which the matter of pornography is the least significant. Some of the most hallowed and respectable broadcasting institutions now feature material that is strictly classifiable as pornographic, to heighten the dramatic or humorous qualities of a program. It seems hardly credible that Centrelink would divert precious resources to track the use of pornographic material by staff, which would be the equivalent of eavesdropping on phone calls to detect the use of four letter words. The formal justification given for the Adelaide dismissals was the alleged violation of the Commonwealth Public Service Act. However, it is not at all clear that the Act covers use of the E-Mail. Since its introduction, Centrelink management has encouraged the widespread use of E-Mail by staff as a means of communication, in preference to use of telephones. The Centrelink Chief Executive Officer recently sent a message to staff throughout Australia via the E-Mail. (Communication by this system now dominates for the Centrelink call-centre workers in particular.) Centrelink guidelines on staff behaviour do not clarify the issue of abuse of the E-Mail system either. In fact, some staff members feel that the management actually prefers to have no guidelines on the matter since they themselves make extensive and relatively uninhibited personal use of the system. The line between personal and work-related use of the system has certainly been blurred at times by management. One branch manager is said to have sent a message to his staff which included details of his proposed weekend activities, including his attendance at football matches! Moreover, personal communication by E-Mail is similar to personal use of phones, which has long been regarded by Centrelink and many other agencies as acceptable, provided the calls are local and are not prolonged. Since the Adelaide case surfaced, at least one Centrelink branch manager has reassured staff that they may make reasonable use of the E-Mail for personal matters, and there is no suggestion that the Adelaide employees made excessive personal use of the system. But there are even more issues emerging from the Adelaide sackings and similar occurrences elsewhere. The first is the potential for invasion of privacy through personal surveillance. The employees in the Centrelink call centre are among the most heavily monitored workers in Australia. A disturbing revelation arising from the Adelaide case is that Centrelink actually maintains a work group in Canberra, known throughout Centrelink as the "E-Mail Police", to monitor the use of E-Mail by staff. Their formal responsibility is to check on activation of major Centrelink client files, but the Adelaide case raises the possibility of this group being used for general surveillance of all E-Mail use. Given the widespread acceptance of personal use of the E-Mail system by Centrelink employees, such surveillance would be equivalent to eavesdropping on phone calls, in effect a clear violation of employee privacy. An equally disturbing issue is that of summary punishment. It appears that the first the Adelaide employees knew about their alleged violation of the law was when the Commonwealth police arrived at their desks, followed almost immediately by their dismissal. There was apparently no counselling or investigation of the applicability of law, and no assessment of the issues involved. In terms of employment, CPSU's Community Services Secretary, Mark Gepp, equates this to Breaker Morant's "Rule 303" for summary execution of opponents. A third issue is the potential for political persecution of employees through the issue of personal calls. One staff member employed by a private firm is said to have been dismissed for circulating an E-Mail invitation to colleagues to join a rally in support of independence for East Timor last year. Centrelink is an embattled organisation, with grim prospects for survival under a hostile Coalition Government. The Government's recent dismemberment of the Centrelink organisation has seriously disadvantaged many of those who depended on its services, and the E-Mail sackings resemble in microcosm the Government's treatment of Centrelink itself. The effect of the sackings has been to increase staff insecurity and resentment and drive down morale. This is hardly the way to ensure the retention of the organisation, but then, perhaps that wasn't the intention.