Following an admission from US supermarket giant Wal-Mart that the company has employed some of its estimated 400 investigators to spy on groups who stand against them, enquiries by Freedom have uncovered a similar story at UK subsidiary Asda.
During the most recent major conflict between Asda and an outside body, a dispute between the company and the GMB led to bug detectors being deployed by unionists during negotiations to avoid surveillance by managers.
The clash, which last year saw a major conflict over whether Asda would recognise the unionisation of its warehouse sector, was one of the most acrimonious of 2006 and saw Asda attempt to oust GMB from all of their buildings. Feelings ran high particularly in the Northwest.
Eddie Gaudie of the GMB union said: “We have had concerns on a number of sites where rooms might be bugged, and there were strong enough concerns that people bought bug detection equipment. A couple of times they did buzz so we were very suspicious.
“When there was an adjournment and we were discussing, there were concerns that when they were coming back in some of their conversations were so close to what was being said in the break it was uncanny.”
While evidence is yet to emerge of the company using private detectives, high-tech methods of surveillance are becoming standard practice across the company, something which shop stewards in the GMB have been expressing increasing unease over. Gaudie explained: “They have cameras everywhere. They have cashless snack machines where they give you a card and can monitor what you buy and how long you are spending buying it.
"They have recently brought in ‘RF Pick’, where they have co-ordinates of where everything is and feed it through to you via a headset. They can monitor everything their workers do. They even track the 10% discount cards – they have tried to sack people for giving them to family.
“I was in a meeting of over 40 shop stewards from around the country and it’s all the same. They have brought the new systems out at the depots. People are being turned more and more into automatons, and people feel they are being asked to do too much.”
“We have surveillance in the vehicles both through tachographs (which monitor speed, distance travelled, and rest periods) and GPS (satellite) tracking. Under this ‘VEMIS’ system, if the driver is over-revving the vehicle they will be brought in. It is another covert way of monitoring the drivers.”
There are fears that this level of information being held on the workforce could lead to the ousting of potentially troublesome workers. In a March speech, Asda’s chief ‘People Director’ David Smith suggested the company should not only ‘hire on attitude, not on skill’, but should use every means in its disposal to oust low-performing staff – a process he calls ‘removing the red’.
The implication is that some of the formidable surveillance equipment being installed - entirely legally – could be a powerful means for the company to divest itself of anyone it thinks of as having the wrong attitude, something which historically has been used to help remove workplace organisers.
Parent company Walmart, the ultimate controller of Asda’s attitude to the workplace, have notoriously used investigators to enforce its puritanical views at work, including the ‘no fraternization’ rule barring staff from having relationships with each other, and it was recently discovered that some of their 400 investigators, many retired agents from the FBI and CIA, had been set to investigate and assess the threat of activist shareholders in the company.