Worker background checks are ‘Big Brother’

Union claims new bill is an invasion of privacy

Worker background checks are ‘Big Brother’

A government bill that could require background checks on hundreds of thousands of workers would result in sweeping invasions of privacy, according to the Electrical Trades Union.

The bill, which would expand the definition of critical infrastructure, would potentially class up to 1.6 million workers in more than a dozen sectors as “insider risks” for cyber and physical attacks. The sectors include communications, energy, financial services, food and groceries, freight, higher education, hospitals, insurance, internet services and superannuation, according to a report by The Australian Financial Review.

The bill will “increase Big Brother-style monitoring of law-abiding citizens,” said ETU national secretary Allen Hicks.

The legislation would extend Auscheck background regulations to those sectors. However, the full scope of the checks and security requirements isn’t known, as they would be subject to still-undrafted regulator rules and employers’ own compliance plans, AFR reported. The ETU warns that the legislation could allow employers to implement systems that continuously monitor their workforce and use the data for purposes that have nothing to do with national security.

Transmission company Powerlink has already advised its workforce that it would comply with the bill by collecting and collating police checks and cyber footprint assessments on all of its employees.

“Good, reliable workers will have their professional lives put on the line by invasive background checks that could dig up irrelevant issues, such as a minor conviction from their very distant past,” Hicks told AFR. “There is also no case to justify the claimed heightened risk to the critical infrastructure ETU and [Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union of Australia] members work on, and there is no evidence that existing industry legislation is inadequate.”

While there were public consultations on the bill at the draft stage, the ETU said there was “an abject failure” to notify or consult workers. The ETU also questioned the national security relevance of some of the occupations named in the bill, including foot doctors and dental hygienists.

Australian Industry Group has also raised issues with the bill, questioning the relatively short consultation period for the legislation, which was tabled in Parliament less than two weeks after draft feedback.

“We are extremely uncomfortable with proposed reforms that have not been subject to a proper cost-benefit assessment and adequate time for relevant industry scrutiny,” AiGroup industry policy head Louise McGrath said in a submission to the intelligence committee inquiry into the bill. “It also creates uncertainty for industry regarding whether sector-specific rules will be developed, especially in a future scenario where a future quantitative cost-benefit assessment determines that there are no or limited net benefits.”

However, a statement by the Department of Home Affairs said the bill followed two phases of public consultation in which 300 submissions were made, AFR reported.

“The Australian government has committed to continuing to work with critical infrastructure owners and operators and other interested parties in its next phase of consultations,” it said. “This will ensure all final obligations are designed, tested and implemented in a way that genuinely uplifts the security and resilience of our critical infrastructure without unnecessarily impacting industry’s ability to operate effectively and efficiently without unintended consequences.”

The ETU, however, wants the bill to be scrapped or to exempt specific industries like energy or defence.

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