Andrew Bibby


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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Trade unions and Telework

Report produced for the International Trade Secretariat FIET, Autumn 1996


The geography of work is changing.

New technological opportunities mean that businesses can reassess where jobs and work are to be located. Powerful economic factors (involving pressures to increase productivity and reduce costs) are influencing the way that businesses take these decisions.

As a result there are new challenges for trade unions to face and to meet.

This is the theme of this report. The central focus is on the possibility which now exists to develop forms of distance or remote working, away from an employer's traditional workplace, by taking advantage of computer technology and telecommunications. (These two technologies are increasingly coalescing into one, often referred to as 'information and communications technology' or ICT.) Once information is held in digital form, in other words converted into a string of electronic 'bits' and stored on a computer system, it is available for transferring almost effortlessly across great distances via telecommunications links.

The point is easily illustrated: if, for example, business documents or correspondence are stored in paper form in a conventional office filing cabinet, the workers responsible for processing that information must clearly work in the same room - or at least within close geographical reach - of the files they need.

When the same information is stored in digital form, by contrast, the data required can be extracted, worked on and eventually re-filed from a computer located hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. In theory (if not quite yet in practice), the workers can be based anywhere in the world.

This is what in this report will be meant by 'teleworking'.

There are a number of ways in which, already, different forms of teleworking are being introduced.

- Work is being relocated to other geographical areas within a country's boundary, for example to back offices in rural areas where overheads and labour costs may be cheaper

- Work is being relocated from conventional offices into the homes of workers

- Work is being relocated across national boundaries, to neighbouring countries where overheads and labour costs may be cheaper

- Work is being relocated internationally, sometimes to the other side of the world, for example from the developed to the developing world.

One of the themes of this report is that teleworking is closely linked to a growing internationalisation of the service sector industries. Whilst the world has grown used to the international division of labour in manufactured goods, many service-based sectors (particularly those serving the needs of the individual consumer) have up to now operated within the borders of a single country. This is likely to change.

Another theme is that the technology is changing the way in which white-collar work, especially office-based work, is organised. In some types of office work, most notably those which are telephone-based, staff are increasingly finding that the shape of their working day is dictated by technology. The quality of working life is under threat.

A third theme, however, is that teleworking can offer new possibilities not only for businesses but also for individual workers. As we shall see, there are both advantages and disadvantages of becoming a teleworker. But for some people - among them many individual trade union members - the new opportunity for a more flexible working life is warmly welcome.

Trade unions in many countries have recently been reviewing their policies and attitudes towards teleworking. From a position ten years ago when those union organisations which considered the subject generally took a uniformly critical position the response has changed to a more subtle one, well reflected in the motion passed at FIET's 1995 World Congress on the subject.

Telework may be, on the one hand, a tool for employers to move work to geographical areas, where working conditions, salaries and collective bargaining rights are the poorest.

But on the other hand, telework, where regulated through a negotiated framework, may be an interesting alternative for employees in certain phases of their lives, eg as an attractive alternative to physical mobility due to structural changes.

[Extract from Resolution 3, passed at FIET World Congress 1995]

This report has drawn heavily on the various policy statements and publications on telework produced by unions affiliated to FIET. It has also drawn on the now considerable body of collectively negotiated teleworking agreements with employers (mainly at present relating to home-based teleworking and mainly relating to European companies), which together reflect many of the key concerns and issues which trade unions are raising.

The responses received from affiliates to a telework questionnaire circulated early in 1996 by FIET have also proved very valuable and useful. In total, about 30 responses were received, from trade unions in every continent of the world. (Details, and a selective list of other useful publications, are included as an appendix).

This report begins by considering the different types of working situation covered by the telework term, and the position of telework within the wider context of the so-called 'information society' or 'information age'. The second section turns to consider in detail the implications and issues raised by home-based telework. In the third section, the focus moves on to consider collective forms of teleworking, such as remote back offices and call centres. The relocation of work internationally through teleworking, for example to offshore data processing centres, is the focus of the fourth section. Finally the report explores, in the fifth section, the way in which telework can impinge on trade union organisation itself. The report ends with a short conclusion.

Teleworking has been subject of discussion for over twenty years, and I am conscious of all the hard work has already been done within the trade union movement on the issue, which I have been able to draw on for this report. It would be hard to beat, as an overall statement of the theme of this report, the comment made almost ten years ago in 1987 to the FIET Technology Group by a member of the union working party in Sweden exploring the implications of distance working: "Our conclusions start from a position that we shall accept and encourage positive phenomena and by collective agreements eliminate the risks". [PG Svensson, Finansförbundet (Sweden), internal report to FIET Technology Group]

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