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REPORT: Why telework needs institutional regulation and collective bargaining

17 May, 2021IndustriALL launches consultation on guidelines for negotiating telework


From Global Worker No. 1 May 2021

Text: Armelle Seby

Theme: guidelines for negotiating telework

Telework has expanded massively during the pandemic and is here to stay. For some workers it has been a positive experience but working remotely over a long period has also revealed limitations and risks. Trade unions have to react quickly to make sure that workers can benefit from teleworking while avoiding potential pitfalls.

Telework did not start with Covid-19 lockdowns: it is a consequence of the development of new technologies and digital tools. According to the OECD, in 2015, 25 per cent of workers in the manufacturing industry worked remotely at least some of the time.

However, the use of telework exploded globally during the pandemic. According to figures from the European Union, whereas as of 2019, only 5.4 per cent of workers in the EU usually worked from home, close to 40 per cent of EU workers began to telework fulltime as a result of the pandemic.

This has major implications for how work is organized in the future. Research shows that both employers and workers would like to continue teleworking on a regular basis once the health crisis is over. According to a survey of the World Economic Forum (WEF), more than 80 per cent of employers plan to make greater use of telework and to digitize work processes.

This development may be uneven in the different regions of the world, as, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the share of jobs that can be performed remotely has been estimated at 38 per cent of jobs in high-income countries, compared to 13 per cent in low-income economies.

With appropriate regulation and negotiation with trade unions, Telework may have many advantages for workers, including greater autonomy and flexibility. The time saved by not commuting can be devoted to leisure and personal life, hence a better quality of life and greater job satisfaction.

However, telework is not always good for workers. Workers should be able to choose to work remotely or not. Telework should be voluntary, and workers should be able to change the arrangement.

Several elements of remote work are challenging for workers' and trade union rights. When negotiating agreements on telework, unions need to define baselines for protecting these rights.

National labour laws were largely designed for work performed in a workplace under the direct control of the employer. This also applies to occupational health and safety regulations. However, with remote work, work is performed in a place over which the employer has no direct control.

  • How do we make sure that employers fulfil their duty of care?
  • How can we ensure that employers meet responsibilities, like guaranteeing health and safety in the workplace?

The pandemic has confirmed that the prolonged and ad hoc use of telework generates risks for workers’ health and safety. Workers report aches and pains due to poor ergonomics, and feelings of isolation due to reduced contact with colleagues. Employers’ obligations to protect the health and safety of their employees and guarantee workplaces free from violence and harassment remain, even during remote work.

Solutions to overcoming employers’ lack of control of the working environment, and to address the health and safety risks of telework, should be negotiated with the respective trade union.

Working from home blurs the line between professional and private life. It is more difficult for workers to limit their work to statutory hours and to disconnect when not working. Legislation on working hours and overtime should apply to teleworking. Teleworking should also be an opportunity to promote the right to disconnect - not only for remote workers, but for all workers. In addition, the use of digital surveillance tools such as webcams or intrusive software threatens workers’ right to privacy. This is especially true when working from home. Abusive use of surveillance tools must be prevented by all means. Telework requires a management style based on mutual trust and autonomy, and not on the intrusive control of work.

Teleworking also raises issues of equality. Not all workers are equally able to access teleworking. Not all workers have suitable space at home for teleworking. Solutions, including the use of a co-working centres or hubs, should be negotiated so that workers with small and busy houses, or with precarious living conditions, are not penalized.

Not all jobs can be done remotely.

  • How do we ensure that workers whose work requires a presence at production sites are not disadvantaged, and vice versa?
  • How do we avoid creating a division in the workforce between office workers and those working in production?

To broaden access to telework, employers and trade unions should identify which tasks can be performed remotely. A worker who is required to be physically present at the workplace for some tasks should have the option of telework for tasks that can be performed remotely.

Furthermore, employers should guarantee equal treatment for all workers. Remote workers risk being less visible. Employers need to provide the same opportunities for training and career development to remote workers.

In terms of gender equality, teleworking should not be seen as a solution to the unequal division of domestic unpaid work by allowing women to reconcile professional life and domestic work. Teleworking should promote co-responsibility, leaving more time for all workers to reconcile family and professional life. Telework should not be an excuse to fail to implement equality policies, as well as the development of good quality public childcare.

Telework also presents challenges to the central role of the workplace in the organization and development of trade unions. Our current model of trade unionism arose by organizing workers at the workplace, and through taking a collective approach to work and the relationship between workers and their representatives. Teleworking risks increasing the individualization of work, isolating workers at home. Unions should guarantee a minimum compulsory physical presence by workers in the workplace to maintain social bonds with colleagues and workers' representatives. Employers must also ensure that unions have secure access to company communication tools to maintain regular communication with workers.

Trade unions should act quickly and work towards regulating telework through social dialogue and collective bargaining, particularly since employers have realized the potential benefits of telework by saving real estate costs and seeing the productivity gains of workers working longer hours. Teleworking could also become an excuse for increased outsourcing and a digital offshoring of work.

Teleworkers must not carry the burden of any extra costs related to home working. Employers should provide workers with all suitable space and equipment - technical and furniture - necessary for them to perform their contractual duties. All costs incurred by the workers while teleworking, including internet, insurance, heating, electricity, rent of workspace or mobile phone service, should be covered, reimbursed or compensated through allowances by the employers.. The savings and gains associated with this growing form of work organization must be shared with workers.

Collective bargaining and institutional regulation can make it possible for workers to benefit from a greater flexibility in organizing their work while ensuring an optimal level of protection and the respect of their rights.

IndustriALL assistant general secretary Atle Høie says that telework can be an opportunity, but also a curse.

“Spending the time of your daily commute with family is an appealing thought, and the flexibility that comes with it is inspirational. But the positive sides may wear off if you are not adequately ergonomically equipped, when you realize that you are bearing the brunt of the costs of the arrangement and when you start missing your colleagues. For those reasons, it is important to regulate telework through collective agreements and legislation.”

IndustriALL Global Union has developed key principles, as well as practical guidelines for social dialogue and collective bargaining on telework. This material intends to give trade unions the means to ensure that telework benefits workers. They also set the base that will guarantee that remote work becomes a right for workers, and not a privilege that can be granted arbitrarily to some categories of workers, in return for which the worker would give up some of these rights.