Port’s search of mobile phone illegal, fired employees say

Crane operators fired after management found disloyal messages on employer-supplied mobiles say the port violated their assumption of privacy

The Port of Aarhus and its chairman, Aarhus mayor Jacob Bundsgaard, are to be investigated by the police for their role in the firing of three crane operators after their employer-supplied mobile phones were found to contain ‘disloyal’ text messages. 

The management of the municipally-owned port facility fired the three after reading through text messages indicating that they were bullying co-workers who had worked overtime against union recommendations. One text message reportedly said a specific employee who worked overtime should be forced to quit.

The three, two of whom were the crane operators’ union representatives at the port facility, were let go just before Christmas, and have subsequently accepted an offer to voluntarily resign.

But labour unions and legal experts have attacked the port’s management for violating employee privacy, and the three former employees, together with 25 of the port’s current crane operators, have reported the harbour to the police for breaching mail secrecy laws.

“When the port’s management forces access to an employee’s mobile phone, which could also be used privately and without limit according to their agreement, they violate the terms of the law,” Bjarne Overmark, the lawyer for the crane operators, told the press.

The management wrote in a letter to employees that the firings came after messages found on the phones “revealed a work culture that was against the commercially-oriented mindset that we want to promote at the Port of Aarhus”.

Keld Sørensen, a crane operator safety representative for 20 years and one of the three who were sacked, called it disturbing and a breach of trust that the leadership had gone through employees' personal messages.

“It’s a matter of principals because they’ve read our correspondence about the port’s management and what we wrote about our negotiations with them. They’ve gained access to the strategy we’ve used, and that’s a direct assault against the confidentiality agreement we have with our colleagues,” Sørensen told national union network Fagligt Ansvar.

Nina Wedsted, employment law specialist, said it appeared that the port was in the wrong.

“When we talk about the mail-secrecy law, then we’re getting into some very basic and constitutionally guaranteed rights,” Wedsted told Politiken.

The city of Aarhus, which owns the port facility, rejected the charges, indicating it had only read the messages that were sent to and from other work phones. But Overmark scoffed at that explanation and pointed to a similar case involving Copenhagen-based shipper Maersk reportedly spying on union representatives in the US.

“We are talking about over 1,000 messages, so that explanation doesn’t hold water. The mayor and the port’s board of directors have breached the mail-secrecy law, which is something that only a prosecutor can do with a warrant,” Overmark told Fagligt Ansvar.

All the crane operators at the harbour, including the one who was supposedly to be bullied, have signed a letter of support rejecting that any bullying has taken place.