Social networks new battlegrounds for workers

With Facebook 500, million users worldwide this month, social network websites are swiftly becoming the place for bosses to check out their workers.

With Facebook 500, million users worldwide this month, social network websites are swiftly becoming the place for bosses to check out their workers.

A 2009 survey in the United States had 45 per cent of employers using social network web sites to screen job candidates. With 17 million Canadian Facebook users alone, there is no doubt Canadian employers are doing the same.

Take the case of the two auto repair workers in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia.

It’s a small city east of Vancouver. Two employees lost their jobs, in part for the content of their status updates on Facebook, and then denying they posted the content to the BC labour board investigators.

One worker said his Facebook account must have been hacked, but the board said the claim was not credible.

One of the workers was a Facebook “friend” with his boss, even though he had actively been organizing a union at the shop.

The employer claimed that the comments were threatening and homophobic and it is not hard to see why. The union claimed that the workers were targeted because the monitoring of their Facebook accounts started on the same day it filed an application to certify the union.

Once the worker realized his boss was paying attention to his posts, he removed him from having access to his account.

In response, the boss asked a former employee who was still a friend of the worker to keep monitoring his employee’s Facebook postings, which he did, providing the boss with printed copies of work-related posts.

The arbitrator, while ruling in favour of the employer firing the workers, was skeptical of the employer’s claims that the firings had nothing to do with union organizing.

She said that “it is puzzling or suspicious” that the employer did not tell the employees that it was monitoring the postings or even mention it in a disciplinary letter for “disruptive and confrontational behaviour in the workplace.”

Yet, the Facebook information was key in the upholding of these workers’ firings by the labour board.

This is just the beginning. The University of Ottawa fired one of its physics professors, Denis Rancourt, in April 2009.

He alleged in 2010 that access to information requests he had filed showed that the university had hired someone, possibly a student, to investigate his campus activism as early as 2007.

The student allegedly created a Facebook and email account under a false name and used that to infiltrate his group and monitor his activities. The university has denied it as has the student accused of spying, although an investigation is pending into the allegations.

In short, the union-busting Pinkerton detectives of old likely have Facebook accounts now.

While Canadian labour arbitrators and courts appear to be surrendering the free speech, free association and privacy rights of workers, this is not the case south of the border.

The United States’ National Labor Relations Board took a different approach by alleging that a healthcare worker in Connecticut was illegally fired for posting complaints about her boss on her Facebook page.

The labour board argued that the company’s Internet policy had illegal sections “including one that prohibited employees from making disparaging remarks when discussing the company or supervisors and another that prohibited employees from depicting the company in any way over the internet without company permission.” The case will be heard on Jan. 25, 2011.

Social networks are a new battleground that employers are exploiting and the Canadian courts and labour boards appear to be ceding ground to them.

It is up to the workers themselves to avoid “befriending” their bosses, being persuaded to snitch on their co-workers for the boss, and avoid posting work-related comments online for fear of losing their jobs.

Workers must realize that employers are looking at more than a person’s resume when they receive an application and, if hired, the monitoring will not stop, until working people organize and put an end to it.

Peter Moore is a freelance writer based in Ottawa, Canada.

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