Updating EU rules on teleworking stirs up debate in EESC hearing

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Despite all the benefits of teleworking, it is now important not to slide into a culture of "round-the-clock" availability of employees

On 7 January, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a remote hearing on Challenges of teleworking: organisation of working time, work-life balance and the right to disconnect.

Bringing together EESC and European Parliament (EP) members, as well as representatives of the European Commission, the Portuguese EU presidency and civil society organisations, the hearing explored the issue of whether the current EU legal frameworks and social partner agreements sufficiently uphold working rights and ensure fair working conditions for people working from home.

Due to lockdowns swiftly imposed by governments to curb the spread of COVID-19, the share of teleworkers in the EU workforce soared from 5% to close to 50%, which has brought profound changes to the world of work, giving both employers and workers only a few days to adapt, the participants in the hearing said.

They agreed on the polarising impact of telework which has, in the past few months, revealed both its good sides and the bad. However, participants' views on whether it was necessary to update the current EU rules differed.

The hearing was organised as part of preparations for the upcoming EESC opinion on the challenges of teleworking, to be drafted at the request of the Portuguese EU presidency.

As explained by Ana Couto de Olim, representative of the Portuguese presidency at the hearing,  Portugal aims to focus on the challenges of the new organisation of work in its presidency and will initiate an EU-wide debate on the issue, with a high-level conference scheduled for March. The EESC opinion will provide civil society input to the debate.

In his opening remarks, the rapporteur of the EESC opinion, Carlos Trindade, said: Telework brings both opportunities and risks, both for workers and companies, but also for society as a whole. It can change our life for better or for worse.

Among other things, teleworking allows more autonomy and flexibility, reduces commuting time and can reconcile work with private life.

However, at the same time it presents risks in these very same areas, as it may blur the division between work and rest, forcing many to work longer hours often outside their usual working time, which negatively affects their work-life balance and has a detrimental effect on their health, causing muscular and ergonomic problems, but also enhancing the feeling of isolation and leading to stress, depression and burnout.

There is no doubt about the benefits of teleworking. It has saved countless lives and jobs, said MEP Alex Agius Saliba, adding, however, that it carries high risks since with the help of digital tools, it promotes a culture that is always on, with employees reachable round-the-clock for work-related purposes.

Working from home makes it particularly difficult to switch off. With the increase in telework, employees have become victims of their phones, emails and computers. They may feel under constant pressure to check for work-related messages, even during evenings and at weekends,  worried that their employer will demand their immediate attention, he warned.

In order to secure adequate rest periods for workers during which they are unavailable for work-related tasks, questions and requests, the EP is finalising a report which will provide suggestions for a possible EU directive on the right to disconnect. The report, for which Mr Saliba is the rapporteur, is expected to be voted on in a few weeks.

It will describe this right as the right of workers to switch off digital tools, including means of communication, for work-related purposes without facing consequences.

The current EU rules need to be updated to ensure a framework that is fit for the new digital reality, Mr Saliba said. We need a European right to disconnect so that the new digital working conditions do not victimise people. It is fundamental to protect workers from 'invasion' of their rest time.

According to research conducted by Eurofound and presented by Tina Weber, 30% of people who regularly work from home were significantly more likely to work every day or a few times a week in their spare time, which was the case for only 5% of those working in the employers' premises.

This often meant that the required 11 hours of daily rest were not respected, Ms Weber said, adding that in pre-Covid times the work-life balance of regular teleworkers was still more likely to be positive.

Now, as the research showed, many people who worked from home during the pandemic would still like to be able to telework after the crisis. However, the share of those who would prefer to continue teleworking more regularly declined slightly between April and June 2020. People's wish to carry on teleworking after the COVID crisis largely depended on their workplace during the pandemic, with those who had not worked from home far less likely to express the desire to telework in post-COVID times.

Although there are no EU laws specifically dealing with the right to disconnect or with telework, there are several pieces of legislation relevant for working time regulation and fully applicable both to teleworkers and 'digital nomads'.

The Working Time Directive sets a limit of 48 hours on weekly working time and the minimum level of 11 uninterrupted hours of daily rest, as well as weekly rest and four weeks of paid annual leave.

The Directive on Work-Life Balance gives workers with children and carers the right to request flexible working arrangements for caring purposes and to receive a reasoned reply from the employer. One such flexible arrangement is teleworking, the first time that such a right has been incorporated into EU law.

Also highly relevant are two autonomous social agreements concluded by the social partners at EU level: the agreement on telework from 2002 and last year's agreement on digitalisation.

The right to disconnect is often laid down in companies' codes of conduct or in some other forms arranged between employers and individual workers. Some countries, such as France, Italy, Spain and Belgium, already have legislation obliging employers to implement the right to disconnect in their companies.

Alex Pokorny, head of unit in the Commission, explained that detailed arrangements for telework tended to be set out in collective agreements, and occasionally in national law.

This is core business for the social partners nationally and at EU level because possibilities and necessary arrangements vary so much from sector to sector. The Commission strongly supports this approach. The social partners are best placed to determine how to implement telework in their own sectors, he said.

According to Ester Lynch, deputy general secretary at ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation), there are several fundamentals which must be respected with regard to telework.

First of all, workers must have a choice whether or not they want to telework. If there is no collective agreement, you are at the mercy of the employer. Once the COVID crisis is over, the right to return to the workplace should be there, Ms Lynch said.

For Maxime Cerutti of Business Europe, it was crucial for the Commission to give a signal that it is supporting social dialogue.

We think there is no need for a new legislative initiative on the right to disconnect as this has already been addressed by the European social partners, and we're in the implementation process of this new agreement of 2020. What is crucial is the trust between social partners, that is between enterprises and workers, he stressed. He also underlined that it is employers who were responsible for the organisation of work.

Elisabeth Gosme of COFACE, a European civil society network of 50+ family organisations across 23 countries, said her organisation fully supported the idea of having an EU directive on the right to disconnect.

The paid economy depends hugely on the unpaid economy. We will continue to work closely with the social partners and public authorities to ensure that any new developments in telework, smart work or other flexible work arrangements, including the transposition of the EU work-life balance directive, can help boost work-life balance and help move towards a genuine 'reconciliation economy', she concluded.