They are no bigger than a grain of rice and are generally fitted in the flesh between the thumb and index finger. They can store medical data or open doors in the workplace with a mere wave of the hand. But for unions and other experts, the arrival in the UK of microchips for employees represents not a moment of liberation but a massive breach of privacy that should be avoided at all costs.
Manufacturer Biohax Sweden this week told the Sunday Telegraph it was in talks with a number of UK businesses, including some in the financial services sector, to microchip hundreds of employees. The firm said it has fitted more than 3,000 implants in Europe at a cost of around £150 each.
A UK-based business, Bioteq, has already fitted around 150 people with implants, including its own directors.
Unions are leading the charge in voicing concerns over the use of such implants. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We know workers are already concerned that some employers are using tech to control and micromanage, whittling away their staff’s right to privacy.
“Microchipping would give bosses even more power and control over their workers. There are obvious risks involved, and employers must not brush them aside or pressure staff into being chipped,” she added.
For many, microchips are an intrusion too far and open the door to dubious forms of monitoring employees’ movements and communications. But for the companies that offer them, it is a question of convenience.
Steve John Northam, Bioteq’s founder, told People Management his products should always be implanted on a voluntary basis. “We don’t think any employer should be enforcing staff are microchipped. If staff wish to replace their access card with a microchip implant then that is no problem and [is done] by choice,” he said.
Northam added that the driver behind the phenomenon was assistive technology of the kind which is helping disabled workers access their workspace more easily
In the US, microchipping employees is significantly less contentious and in some pockets of the tech industry is already becoming commonplace. A Wisconsin-based firm, Three Square Market, made headlines last year when it chipped a third of its employees with BioHax implants to enable them to do without passes or computer logins. The implants are not equipped with GPS, but do gather data from their subjects.
The CIPD’s head of research and thought leadership, Edward Houghton, urged employers to exercise extreme caution and diligence in considering the issue. “It’s difficult to find a justification for something that is so intrusive,” he said.
“There are far more appropriate means to monitor and understand how workers are behaving than microchipping them… there is a boundary between personal and professional life and by its design, microchipping blurs that boundary.
“There is little published and rigorous evidence to tell us how much of an impact individual implants can have on employees, and even outside of work it is an emerging and unresearched space,” Houghton added. “There are a lot of risks associated with the quick uptake of these kind of practices without building or understanding the evidence.”
While limited tracking technology is already in use in the workplace – including email monitoring, wearable technology and GPS tracking of company vehicles – the crucial factor is that it can be disconnected at the end of the day, Houghton added.
Employees who refuse to get the implants shouldn’t “feel excluded because they say no, ” he said, as this could potentially create tension in the workplace.
For Slater and Gordon employment lawyer Danielle Parsons, employees should be consulted from the outset on the use of implants and should be able to “make an informed decision” on the issue.
“Whether [the use of these chips] is justifiable has to be clearly explained,” she told People Management. “How will the data be gathered and why is this needed?
“I don’t think it’s a casual occurrence at all and I’d be wary of employers approaching this particular issue in a cavalier way. I think it needs to be very carefully looked into.”
“There are some instances where microchipping is useful,” Parsons added. “But it’s harder to see why you would have microchipping in a work environment and why it’s better than spending a minute turning on a computer.”
How the data is being used and where it is stored are crucial questions, Parsons said. But there are, perhaps, even bigger fundamentals to grapple with before UK workplaces follow their Silicon Valley cousins in asking employees to truly get under the skin of the employment relationship.