Puplick gives Govt a serve on workplace privacy


Puplick gives Govt a serve on workplace privacy

Genetic testing in the workplace is the biggest issue facing workers in the new century, according to NSW Privacy Commissioner Chris Puplick.


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Genetic testing in the workplace is the biggest issue facing workers in the new century, according to NSW Privacy Commissioner Chris Puplick.


Puplick told the Labor Council of NSW’s annual conference in Sydney yesterday that genetic testing was the most challenging issue for privacy experts, and that it wasn’t only employers that were demanding such tests.

Unions too had asked for genetic testing, specifically in relation to occupational health and safety, to find out for example if certain groups of people were genetically predisposed to disease brought about by certain industrial chemicals.

He said the fact that in the United States one in three people in senior positions had undergone some form of genetic testing had led to former President Bill Clinton outlawing such requirements federally.

Using the example of Alzheimer’s Disease, he said it could now be predicted very early on which people would later develop the disease, although not when. He raised the question of whether the knowledge that someone would get a disease which would later render them incapable of making decisions should be shared if they were to hold responsible office.

‘So if I was to take a table napkin from a dinner table, and find out that the person who had wiped their hands and mouth on this napkin was predisposed to Alzheimer’s later in their life, do I make that public?’ he asked.

‘What if that table napkin turned out to be Ronald Reagan’s? His privacy, my security.'

As you can see, the debate and the questions are going to get a lot more interesting from here on in.’

Puplick criticised the Carr Government for a number of perceived inadequacies, chief of which was the specific exclusion of employee records from ‘personal data’ under state privacy legislation.

‘One should regard the workplace as the one place where rights to privacy are the most subscribed, and the weakest’, he said.

‘The State Government, much to my regret, has decided employee records are not to be regarded as personal data—this lets the employer use this information in a way it couldn’t otherwise be used.’

Puplick said his particular concern here was in the area of health records. ‘If they were held in your file as a patient, they’d have enormous protection. If they’re held in your file as an employee, they have none‘, he said.

He said a current complaint before the Commission dealt with an incident at a farewell lunch. The group had decided to order one dessert with six spoons. But the personnel manager, who knew (not through personal information, but only because it was on the employee’s file for insurance reasons) that one of the group was HIV positive, approached the kitchen. He asked for a smaller dessert with a separate spoon to be served on the side for that person, ‘because of his responsibilities under OHS legislation’.

‘Apart from the sheer stupidity of the thing, these are the sorts of issues that will come to pass,’ he said. ‘By and large, there’s no such thing as personal privacy in the workplace.’

Another word of warning was over email, ‘the most notorious issue because it’s the most contemporary’.

‘Everything you put on email you should regard as the same status as a postcard. Don’t send anything you don’t expect anybody to be able to read.’

He said email was increasingly being used as a form of harassment, and referred to the latest Ombudsman’s report, which showed 36 serving NSW police officers had routinely distributed pornographic material via email.

Puplick said it was ‘very depressing’ to realise that ‘if you can’t expect police to understand what’s lawful or not, how can you expect others to understand?’.

But the Government and police weren’t the only ones to cop a drubbing. Wearing his hat as President of the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW, Puplick said he had found it difficult to engage with some unions when it came to discrimination issues.

‘I ask why, when I have a sexual harassment case before me and ask the complainant if they’ve spoken to their union about it. They say yes, but the person they spoke to said—I don’t know what’s the matter with you girlie. You should be flattered he noticed you had great tits.

‘I ask why, when an apprentice is sodomised with a Coke bottle, and the perpetrator is sacked for the incident, and the union takes on the perpetrator’s unfair dismissal case.

‘Why do I find when the Court Government amends its laws to outlaw discrimination on the basis of union membership that the Carr Government rejects bringing that in under discrimination laws.

‘And I ask why, over issues of discrimination regarding in vitro fertilisation, does the most virulent and hostile letter come from the national secretary of a union?’

In response to questioning from a hostile delegate yesterday, Puplick said it was a matter of fact that 60% complaints were harassment related, and 600 complaints a year came from women. Where the union has been actively involved in those complaints, 65% of the time it has been there on behalf of the alleged harasser.

Puplick said the problem was attitudinal issues. ‘For those of us working in human rights, who have absolutely a synthesis with what unions are about, we ask—why?’



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