Covid France: Social distancing tags spark worker row

The boxes being discussed by hygiene company Essity emit a loud noise or vibration if staff get too close to each other

14 January 2021
By Hannah Thompson

A row has broken out in France after it emerged that a company is considering asking employees to wear electronic “dog tags”, which check that workers are not breaking physical distancing rules.

The “tags” are in fact small electronic boxes, which can be worn on the torso or on a lanyard around the neck. They check that wearers are not too close to each other, and let out a signal if the limit is breached - in a bid to force workers to stick to Covid-19 physical distancing rules.

Swedish hygiene company Essity - which makes products such as toilet paper, tissues, wipes, and cotton buds - said it is “discussing” using the boxes, but workers’ union CFDT has objected.

It asked: “Is management planning to treat workers like dogs?”, and compared the system to “one that trains dogs to stop barking”.

It added that the boxes were “particularly intrusive and infantilising”, and would be used simply to “discipline workers and bring them to order”.

Essity has almost 2,800 employees across eight sites in France. It said that the system would aim to “increase the safety of team members” by limiting “the risk of spreading the virus as much as possible”.

The boxes are made by Belgian technology company Phi Data. Although each box has an individual number, the company asserts that the boxes “do not have a GPS system and are not connected to personal data” of the wearer.

As soon as one box gets too close to another, it emits either a sound as loud as 83 decibels, a strong vibration, or its LED light flashes. The time and length of these events is recorded.

The idea is that if one worker is later confirmed to have Covid-19, it is possible to trace which other staff members they have been “in contact” with.

Dave Engel, commercial developer at Phi Data, told newspaper Le Monde: “A doctor could then quickly identify the other members of staff who need to be tested, without revealing their identity.”

Essity itself said: “Using this system, our site Covid manager could alert potential contact cases in a quick and comprehensive manner.

Phi Data has said that in order for the system “to be effective, 90-95% of workers would need to wear the box”.

Essity told Le Monde that “the introduction of this system is currently under discussion with staff representatives on the idea of introducing this into several of the group’s European sites”, but union CFDT alleges that the idea was presented to sites in November 2020, and the orders for the boxes have already been made.

Christine Duguet, central CFDT delegate, said: “We do not want this project, and workers do not want it. We know that this will lead to a battle if we are not heard. We are already talking about strikes.

“[This system] is an attack on individual freedoms, it is anxiety-provoking, and its effectiveness has not been proven. When a worker is declared positive [for Covid] we already know how to identify the people that they work with.

“We already wear masks and goggles the entire time; break spaces are limited to two people; everyone is already doing everything they can to respect the rules. People can’t take it any longer. Enough is enough.”

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