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Two more German chains caught spying on employees

Germany was shocked last week to learn that Stasi-like techniques were used to spy on employees of supermarket giant Lidl. Now a report has emerged showing that the chains Plus and Edeka may have done the same. Politicians are being urged to protect employee privacy. A week after reports emerged that the major German supermarket chains Lidl and Schlecker had been spying on their employees, two other giants, the supermarkets Plus and Edeka, have been accused of doing the same.

The Web site of the German weekly magazine Stern reported Wednesday that the two chains had used similar methods to spy on employees on the job, on cigarette and coffee breaks, and even on the toilet. Detectives from a firm hired by the companies allegedly installed miniature cameras in stores, telling the manager that they were part of an anti-theft campaign. Using the cameras and personal observation, the detectives would fill out Stasi-like observation logs including pages and pages of transcripts and details.

Allegations surfaced last week against Lidl (more...)and Schlecker, Germany's largest drugstore chain, where, according to union representatives, employees were even surveilled through spyholes (more...). The extent of the spying at Plus and Edeka was, according to Stern, less than at Lidl.

A number of excepts from these logs were published on Stern's Web site and included observations made of employees both on and off the job. For example, a log on one Edeka employee states: "Mr. J. appears to spend the whole day re-organizing the fruits and vegetables and is rarely seen undertaking any other activities." Or, from a Plus franchise in northern Germany, comes a report about Ms. C.: "There was an anonymous tip that Ms. C. allegedly doesn't take sufficient care of her 8-year-old daughter and that, whenever she has a midday shift, she pushes the child onto a friend. Regarding this matter, Ms. C. has a meeting today at 5 p.m. with Child Protective Services."

The companies have been quick to begin damage control. A statement posted on the company's Web site says that cameras in Plus stores are exclusively for theft control and "is in no way intended to document the behavior of our employees." Plus admits that outside contractors made notes about individual workers, but said: "The information obtained by the external contractor was not explicitly commissioned and it was neither evaluated nor further used." A spokesperson from Edeka headquarters told Stern that this kind of surveillance of employees was "illegal" and would not be tolerated. She added that the original contract with the security firm was aimed at countering theft. "We do not spy on our employees," a spokeswoman for the firm told the Associated Press.

In the meantime, Lidl, which operates approximately 17,000 stores in 17 European countries, has apologized to its employees and customers. Company spokeswoman Petra Trabert told Stern last week that the transcripts were not intended as "employee observation but rather to detect possible misconduct." But apologies, couched denials and explanations might not be enough to get these companies off the hook. "We're dealing with the tip of the iceberg here. Most surveillance goes on unnoticed, without our knowledge," Peter Schaar, Germany's data protection commissioner, told AP. "New possibilities for surveillance tempt some people to monitor employees."

Schaar repeated his call for explicit rules regarding employee data protection to be established, whether as a separate law or as part of the German data protection law. These comments echo those made by German union leaders and by German Consumer Protection Minister Horst Seehofer, who wrote a guest editorial for the Bild am Sonntag Sunday paper stating that such a law should also include fines substantial enough to have an impact on large companies.

There is no word yet regarding whether legal action will be taken against Plus and Edeka. The Interior Ministry of the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, however, has launched an investigation into possible violations of privacy protection rules at Lidl. The ministry has jurisdiction because Lidl's corporate headquarters are located in the city of Neckarsulm in that state.


Publication date: 4/7/2008


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