After years of debate, industrial disputes and legal wrangling, legislation is finally being introduced to cover email monitoring in the Australian workplace.
The state of New South Wales has taken the lead, announcing that the proposed Workplace Surveillance Act, which will regulate the use of surveillance devices to monitor employees, will be drafted by the end of the year.
In the absence of legislation, most organisations introduced Internet policies in recent years to advise employees of email monitoring, but the introduction of a Bill and its formal guidelines will bring an end to workplace disputes that invariably end up before the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC).
The legislation has support from both sides of the workplace with employers claiming IRC rulings are inconsistent and employees claiming organisations should be forced to disclose surveillance on workers.
The legislation will clarify these issues as the Act will legally force employers to advise workers of workplace surveillance, said NSW Labour Council secretary John Robertson, who pointed out that "unions have been arguing for years that workers should not be spied on at work."
"Employers should not screen private emails. While there should be limits placed on email usage, emails themselves should not be monitored," Robertson said.
Announcing the legislation, NSW Premier Bob Carr said employers have a "legitimate right to protect business interests – but not at the expense of the privacy of their workers."
However, Clayton Utz head of workplace relations and employment law Joe Catanzariti said most organisations already comply with the proposed legislation.
"All employers with half a brain have been told by their lawyers to have a policy saying that emails belong to the company, and to advise that employees' email is being monitored," Catanzariti said.
Asia-Pacific regional sales manager of email filtering provider Websense, Graham Pearson, welcomed the legislation, saying the law has been one step behind workplace issues that organisations have been tackling for years.