Spain: Covert video surveillance of supermarket workers led to privacy violation

Supermarket cashiers suspected of theft had their privacy breached after their employer used hidden video cameras to spy on them.

In today’s Chamber judgment1 in the case of López Ribalda v. Spain (application no. 1874/13) the

European Court of Human Rights held:

by six votes to one, that there had been a violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private


family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights, and


that there had been no violation of Article 6 § 1 (right to a fair trial).

The applicants, Isabel López Ribalda, María Ángeles Gancedo Giménez, María Del Carmen Ramos Busquets, Pilar Saborido Apresa, and Carmen Isabel Pozo Barroso, are five Spanish nationals who were born in 1963, 1967, 1969 and 1974 respectively and live in Sant Celoni and Sant Pere de Vilamajor (Ms Pozo Barroso) (both in Spain).

The case concerned the covert video surveillance of a Spanish supermarket chain’s employees after suspicions of theft had arisen. The applicants were dismissed mainly on the basis of the video material, which they alleged had been obtained by breaching their right to privacy.

The Spanish courts accepted the recordings in evidence and upheld the dismissal decisions.

As just satisfaction (Article 41), the European court decided by four votes to three that Spain was to pay the applicants 4,000 euros (EUR) each in respect of non-pecuniary damage.

It held unanimously that Spain had to pay EUR 500 to the first applicant in respect of costs and expenses and EUR 568.86 euros to each of the others.

In June 2009, the applicants were all working as cashiers for M.S.A., a family-owned supermarket chain.

The surveillance was carried out by their employer in order to investigate possible theft after the shop manager had noticed irregularities between stock levels and what was actually sold on a daily basis.

The employer installed both visible and hidden cameras. The company told its workers about the visible cameras but not about the hidden ones and they were thus never aware that they were being filmed.

All the workers suspected of theft were called to individual meetings where the videos were shown to them. They had caught the applicants helping customers and other co-workers to steal items and stealing them themselves.

The court found in particular that under Spanish data protection legislation the applicants should have been informed that they were under surveillance, but they had not been. The employer’s rights could have been safeguarded by other means and it could have provided the applicants at the least with general information about the surveillance.

The domestic courts had failed to strike a fair balance between the applicants’ right to privacy and the employer’s property rights.

However, the Court found that the proceedings as whole had been fair because the video material was not the only evidence the domestic courts had relied on when upholding the dismissal decisions and the applicants had been able to challenge the recordings in court.

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