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H&M fined 35 million euros in Germany for spying on employees

Swedish fashion retailer H&M has been fined 35.3 million euros (41.4 million dollars) by an ombudsman in Germany for collecting data on employees' private lives.

Hamburg, 1 October 2020 (dpa/MIA) – Swedish fashion retailer H&M has been fined 35.3 million euros (41.4 million dollars) by an ombudsman in Germany for collecting data on employees’ private lives.

The monitoring targeted several hundred employees at a service centre in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, according to a statement released by Johannes Caspar, the Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, on Thursday.

Since at least 2014, H&M management at the Nuremberg site gathered “extensive recordings of the private-life circumstances” of employees, the statement said.

“Some supervisors acquired a broad knowledge of their employees’ private lives through one-on-one and water-cooler conversations, ranging from rather harmless details to family problems and religious beliefs,” it added.

The employees would be invited to “Welcome Back Talks” after periods of sick leave or holiday absences, after which details were often recorded and digitally stored in a system “readable for up to 50 other managers throughout the company.”

Caspar described the behaviour as a “flagrant disregard of employee data protection,” adding that the hefty fine was intended to deter other companies from taking similar action.

According to his spokesman, the fine is the highest issued in Germany related to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force in May 2018.

It is the second-highest on the continent, after French regulators fined Google 50 million euros last year for a GDPR violation.

H&M has two weeks to challenge the Hamburg authority’s move; the company has so far said only that it intends to review the decision and fine.

In a statement, the retailer said “the incident revealed practices for processing employees’ personal data that were not in line with H&M’s guidelines and instructions.”

The company added that it “takes full responsibility and wishes to make an unreserved apology to the employees at the service centre in Nuremberg.”

H&M said that it has made management-level changes at the service centre and conducted “additional training for leaders in relation to data privacy and labour law.”

Employees who have worked there for at least one month since May 2018 are to receive financial compensation, the company added, without disclosing a sum.

Caspar praised H&M for its “efforts in compensating those affected and restoring confidence in the company.”

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