Spying in the Supermarket Lidl Bosses Deny Knowledge of Employee Surveillance

The German discount supermarket chain Lidl was recently caught spying on its workers. Now top bosses from the firm say they were as surprised as anyone else -- but explain that surveillance has to continue.

Corporate bosses at a German discount supermarket chain have denied any knowledge of a widespread regime of petty espionage that collected information on employees' work habits, their love lives and even their lunch and bathroom breaks.

"It really made our blood run cold," said Klaus Gehrig, chairman of Lidl's supervisory board, in an interview with the mass circulation newspaper Bild am Sonntag. "We knew nothing about it and were just as astonished as everyone else."

Frank Michael Mros, head of Lidl Deutschland, told Bild am Sonntag that "all secret cameras were removed immediately" after Stern magazine broke the spying story in late March . All the workers who were filmed or reported on by private detectives are now allowed to see the videos and reports, he said.

Gehrig said the spied-on workers would also receive what he described as a "thank-you payment" of €300 ($476) each.

The scale of the spying -- which was uncovered in stores throughout Germany and the Czech Republic -- shocked the German public, with the methods reminding some of the East German Stasi secret police. "These are measures that I, for one, have only ever seen in totalitarian states," said Achim Neumann, a retail expert at the Ver.di labor union. The union says it will support any of its members who wanted to take legal action.

The Lidl transcripts showed an alarming level of detail. One report, prepared by a detective for Lidl and obtained by Stern, reads: "Although Ms. N has not accomplished much in the food and reduced wares department, she takes her break right on time. She sits together with Ms. L.; they talk about their wages, bonuses and paid overtime. Ms. N. hopes that her pay has been transferred already because she desperately needs money for this evening (reason = ?)."

Lidl spokeswoman Petra Trabert told Stern at the time that the detective work wasn't meant as "employee observation but rather to detect possible misconduct."

So would Lidl give up surveillance altogether? "That won't work in a company with 3,000 branches," Gehrig told Bild am Sonntag. "We will re-install cameras in the supermarkets -- for the protection of employees and to guard against theft. But it will happen in open dialogue with our employees, who will be asked to give consent and who will be allowed to watch the footage at any time."

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