EESC delves into the challenges of teleworking

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The first COVID-19 lockdowns saw the number of teleworkers in the EU workforce skyrocket from 5% to 40%. One year later and with telework here to stay, it is still difficult to deliver a proper assessment of its impact on employers, employees and society as a whole. The EESC points to the need for more research to be carried out and for a long-term perspective to be taken, with a view to harnessing the benefits and mitigating the risks of this form of work

Despite the obvious opportunities it offers to workers and employers alike, such as better productivity, more flexible working arrangements and greater autonomy, telework can still negatively influence people's working and private life. During the pandemic this has sometimes led to the blurring of the boundaries between the two, to excessive workloads, longer working hours and insufficient rest time.

As such and in a culture which is always on and in which many workers find it difficult to disconnect, it can subsequently take a toll on people's mental and physical health and well-being. Carrying out more home-based telework and juggling it with domestic chores, women are especially prone to experience its negative sides, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) said in two opinions on telework adopted at its March plenary session.

In its exploratory opinions on the Challenges of teleworking and Teleworking and gender equality – requested by the Portuguese EU presidency – the EESC delved into the challenges of teleworking, exploring its implications for the organisation of working time, and for work-life balance, labour rights and the right to disconnect, which must be given special attention in any debate on the matter.

One of the opinions specifically deals with the impact of telework on women, with the figures showing that more women have been teleworking during the pandemic and are more likely to have temporarily stopped working due to care obligations.   

The Portuguese presidency, which has put the new organisation of work high on its political agenda, has initiated an EU-wide debate on this issue. The EESC's opinions, which represent civil society's take on the matter, will contribute to the Council conclusions, to be published this spring.

 

FRAMEWORK AGREEMENTS AND EU LEGISLATION COVERING TELEWORK

While it is up to employers to decide on the organisation of work, social dialogue is a vital means in workplaces for dealing with issues such as wages, working time, connectivity arrangements, health and safety, skills development and promotion opportunities in the context of teleworking.

To minimise the risks and amplify the benefits of telework in post-pandemic times, the EESC is therefore calling on the social partners in the Member States to draw up rules tailored to each country, and each sector-specific and company-specific situation, in the framework of the already established social dialogue and collective bargaining systems.

Telework should be properly regulated; it is important here to ensure that it is reversible once the COVID crisis is over and that it remains voluntary. Teleworkers should have the same individual and collective rights and the same workload as their colleagues working in their employers' premises. The teleworking arrangements must be set out in writing, guaranteeing equal treatment and equal health and safety conditions at work, the EESC said.

Working from home is going to be a feature of future labour markets, but we cannot allow it to lead to social regression and the isolation of workers. It can help people reconcile professional and personal lives but we cannot allow any discrimination or difference in treatment between those who work at home and those who decide to go to the office, said the rapporteur for the opinion on the Challenges of teleworking, Carlos Manuel Trindade.

Collective bargaining between trade unions and companies will be important to regulate this new form of work. These agreements will have to guarantee that there is no backtracking on social rights but rather the contrary, he stressed.

Disparities in access to telework may exacerbate inequalities, including the inequalities between men and women. For example, less-qualified women may not possess adequate digital skills or have at their disposal the necessary digital technology to be able to telework, which can deepen the gender digital divide, the EESC warned.

However, given the rapid expansion of this way of working, and in the light of the lessons learnt from the pandemic, the existing EU agreements covering telework should be assessed to make sure they are still effective in the new circumstances, the EESC noted.

Particularly relevant are the 2002 and 2020 Framework Agreements on Telework and Digitalisation respectively, concluded by the social partners at the EU level. They should be taken into account by the Member States and social partners when drawing up national frameworks for companies and workers using this form of work.

The Agreement on Digitalisation, which is being implemented by the social partners in the Member States, addresses modalities of connecting and disconnecting. Some countries, such as France, Italy, Spain and Belgium, already have legislation on the right to disconnect.

Furthermore, a European initiative could potentially be launched under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and/or at Member State level to protect and give effect to the right to disconnect.

The EU and Member States should also make use of the existing legislation that is fully applicable to telework such as the Working Time and Work-Life Balance Directives. Those should be transposed into national law and implemented accordingly, as this will undoubtedly lead to an improvement in the working conditions of teleworkers.

The figures, provided by a Eurofound study, showed that 30% of regular teleworkers now worked in their free time on a daily basis or several times a week and around 20% worked more than 48 hours a week. Around 40% of "regular" teleworkers rested for less than 11 hours a day.

In accordance with the legislation and collective bargaining agreements, companies should use appropriate mechanisms to measure normal working hours and overtime.

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

 

TELEWORK AND GENDER EQUALITY

In this opinion, which explored the impact of telework on gender equality, the EESC drew attention to the risk of using teleworking to impose a double burden of paid and unpaid work. Domestic work is still not equally divided between women and men, being mostly shouldered by women, which reduces their ability to be productive at paid work and could also undermine their professional prospects.  

Both society as a whole and businesses must do everything possible to dispel these gender stereotypes and recognise women as full workers beyond their many other roles and qualities. The economic and social cost of these prejudices for society is very heavy, said the rapporteur of the opinion Milena Angelova.

We welcome the Commission's campaign on combating gender stereotypes. We reiterate the need for a cultural change, for advocating non-stereotypical family roles and choices of women and men when it comes to studies, professions and jobs. We stress the need to remove any structural barriers in order to achieve a more equal distribution of the unpaid domestic and care work, she stressed.

In this regard, the EESC urged the Member States to promptly and efficiently implement the Work-Life Balance Directive. It also called for a Care Deal for Europe, stressing that available, accessible and affordable care infrastructure and services for children, people with special needs and seniors are another crucial prerequisite of gender-equal teleworking.

Co-rapporteur for the opinion Erika Koller said: Teleworking can help balance work and personal life but it carries the risk of the worker becoming invisible in the work community, missing out on formal and informal support structures. This can perpetuate gender inequalities at work and in society as a result of gender-blind policies and limited access to information, including in relation to pay. This can risk exacerbating the gender pay gap. Women can miss out on training and promotion opportunities. A proper gender analysis is required to address these issues.

During the pandemic, the burden has been especially heavy for mothers of children under 12 or children with special needs, as well as for women with other care responsibilities, such as looking after dependent older family members, most at risk in the pandemic. Telework during the pandemic has also increased the risk of domestic or online violence by a third for women, Ms Koller stated.