Could a webcam-on policy violate human rights? A Dutch court thinks so

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Spencer Feingold, Digital Editor, Public Engagement, World Economic Forum

  • A Dutch court ruled that a workplace requirement to keep a webcam on violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • The ruling comes as businesses continue to maneuver the “new normal” of remote work.
  • “Remote or hybrid work is now set to persist for a sizeable minority of the workforce in developed economies,” the Forum’s Good Work Framework report stated.

Over two years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to embrace remote work, employees and employers are still navigating workplace and private life boundaries.

This month, in the Netherlands, a court ruled that a company overstepped this divide by requiring a remote worker to keep his webcam on nearly all day. The ruling was part of a wrongful termination lawsuit that the employee filed after being fired for refusing.

“Instruction to leave the camera on is contrary to the employee’s right to respect for his private life,” the court ruled.

In recent years, part-time or fully remote work has been widely adopted across the world. And while studies show that most employees prefer hybrid work and that productivity remains high among remote workers, striking a proper balance remains a common challenge for both employees and employers.

“Remote working has the potential to be positive for work-life balance, fostering a greater sense of autonomy, and increasing job satisfaction and well-being,” the World Economic Forum’s Good Work Framework report stated. “It also creates new challenges for workplace cohesion as well as inequality, with the option of remote work primarily available to highly skilled, highly educated workers.”

In the United States, for example, one recent study found that 47% of remote workers worry that the boundaries between professional and personal lives gets blurred.

In the case in the Netherlands, the company policy required remote workers at times to keep webcams on for several hours a day and share their screens, according to court documents. When the employee refused citing privacy concerns, he was fired for “refusal to work” and “insubordination.”

The court, however, determined that the employee had adequately fulfilled his job responsibilities and that the webcam requirement violated the European Convention on Human Rights. Specifically, the demand infringed on Article 8 of the convention, which protects the “right to respect for private and family life.”

The court noted that while Article 8 was intended to protect citizens from government intrusions, it has been used to establish workplace boundaries. In 2017, for instance, the European Court of Human Rights cited Article 8 in a judgment that found that “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,” the Dutch court explained in its ruling.

The court ordered the employer to pay the employee’s legal fees, provide back wages and pay a fine for violating employment law.

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