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

B. Home as the Workplace

Different experiences of home working

The experience of working from home is not the same for everyone. Whether individuals generally perceive it to be positive or negative depends on a wide range of factors: the work being done, the status of the work, the way the work is paid, the employment status and conditions involved, the amount of space at home and the living conditions there, the personal circumstances of the home worker, and many more.

Generalisations that home teleworking is always to be opposed - or, alternatively, always to be supported - are clearly inappropriate, therefore.

It helps to distinguish between different types of home-based telework. In the previous chapter, a distinction was drawn between partial home-teleworking, where staff (usually professionals) also work for part of the working week on their employers' premises, and full-time telehomeworking involving low-status repetitive work paid by results.

Another way of approaching this is to make a distinction between off-line and on-line teleworking. The on-line teleworker is permanently connected to an employer's network, for example handling telephone calls routed in to the home via automated call distribution (ACD) technology. Their working life is much more controlled by technology, and they have much less flexibility in the way that they organise their working time.

Off-line teleworkers typically are much freer to set their own working rhythms, undertaking work on their home PCs and connecting to company computer networks as and when necessary to download or upload files or check e-mail. This is likely to the experience, for example, of software developers, researchers, teleworking executives, etc.

The image of teleworking from a pleasant country cottage or summer house away from the pressures of urban life (and the problems of commuting to work) is a seductive one. However, it presupposes that everyone can afford this sort of lifestyle. In practice, the issue is likely to be whether the teleworker has adequate space at home to be able to telework without serious detrimental effect on their private life. In particular, the key question is often whether there is space for a separate teleworking office, where work equipment (and appropriate furniture) can be properly installed. Among other things, this raises questions of class.

The variety of types of home-teleworking needs to be borne in mind when considering the points raised in the rest of this chapter. Currently, most of the experience of negotiating home-based telework agreements is European-based, and in general relates to higher-status workers.

* Siemens Nixdorf Informationssystems in Stockholm introduced a home-based teleworking programme in 1995 at the same time as it relocated to a new, less central, site 30 kms north of the city. Currently about 150 of the 200+ workforce have the option to telework, between 2-4 days a week.

* Digital Italy introduced a voluntary telework programme for ten software engineers in 1996, by agreement with the works council.

The advantages and disadvantages of home working

Many individual workers currently working in conventional workplaces find the idea of working from home enormously attractive. Trade unions which seek to have a blanket ban against telework risk losing the support and goodwill of their members or potential members.

However, unions also have the task of pointing out the disadvantages as well as the advantages of taking work home. Sometimes the disadvantages are not immediately apparent. There may also be longer-term implications which need to be identified: for example, short-term satisfactions of home-working can fade as workers find themselves cut off from their colleagues and from the possibilities of career advancement and further training.

"What sounds good at first can soon turn out to be problematic. Unfortunately, there are still many dangers which are not evident at first glance.

"Three years ago I took part in an HBV working group on the topic of telework. We, too, had the initial impression that the pros outweighed the cons. Only a closer examination of the facts made it apparent that telework has enormous drawbacks."

[Gabi Seum, full-time works council member at Commerzbank head office, speech to HBV national assembly Feb 29, 1996]

One union which has tried dispassionately to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages is the HBV (Germany). It has produced the following table:

Pros and cons - what positive and negative effects does telework at home have on employees?

Positive effects                       Dangers                                 
                                       Negative effects                        


Free choice or working times           Danger of overwork                      
                                       Loss of premiums for                    

Undisturbed work                       Work postponed during illness or        
                                       employee works despite illness          
                                       Unclarity as to identity of             
                                       replacement in case of illness          
                                       Less use made of right to take leave    
                                       when children are ill                   
                                       Impossible to ignore family             

Fewer conflicts with                   Loss of communications with colleagues  

Conduct cannot be supervised or        Loss of evaluation of work and          
monitored                              performance/recognition                 

Reduced travel costs and time          Workplace standards not guaranteed      
                                       Ability of works council and safety     
                                       inspectors to inspect workplaces        
                                       Damage to hard/software, loss of data,  
                                       unauthorised access to data             

Greater ease in combining work and     Invasion of the private sphere          
family responsibilities                                                        

Child care easier (or only             Employee loses sight of developments    
alternative to giving up work          within company.  Less chance of         
entirely)                              promotion, etc                          
                                       No participation in life of the         
                                       company/everyday life                   
                                       Two classes of employees:               
                                       - those with suitable jobs for          
                                       - those with suitable rooms             
                                       Once a teleworker, always a             
                                       Participation in activities connected   
                                       with representation of employee         
                                       interests (works council, trade union)  


[Telearbeit: Chance oder Risiko?, Diskussionsmaterial der Gewerkschaft Handel, Banken und Versicherungen, 1995]

"The best advice for those work places which are in the process of introducing teleworking from home is: Think it over beforehand!..

Do I have room for an office space which fulfils the requirements for a reasonable working environment? Will I be able to work without interruptions? How will my work influence the rest of the family? How will things work out when the children get home from school - will I be able to plan my work in such a way that I might take a few hours off at that point? It might be almost as important to have an agreement with the other family members, as with the employer, on how the whole thing should work."

[Med Jobbet På Distans, TCO (Sweden) 1996]

Negotiating teleworking

Separately, different trade unions have identified many of the same issues for negotiation when home-based teleworking is under discussion.

The British white collar union MSF's Telework Guidelines are a useful summary of many of the key points:

* Teleworkers should be employees of an enterprise, not deemed self-employed.

* To avoid isolation, contracts of employment should require home workers to attend the office periodically.

* There should be a separate room available at home for teleworking, a separate telephone, and employers should pay for additional costs.

* There should be regular meetings between teleworkers, and the provision of e-mail and telephone links with other teleworkers, all provided at the employer's expense

* There should be regular weekly liaison discussions between teleworkers and their supervisor/manager.

* Teleworkers should enjoy the same rates of pay and employment benefits as office-based workers, including childcare provision and family leave. There should be a defined number of working hours and teleworkers should be included in career development and appraisal schemes including training opportunities.

* All computer equipment should be provided, paid for and serviced by the employer who will be responsible for installation, maintenance, insurance and compliance with health and safety requirements. The employer should also accept legal responsibility for any accident or injury.

* Teleworkers should have access to trade union representation and be able to attend meetings within working hours. Health and safety advisers and trade union representatives should be able to visit teleworkers.

* Teleworking should be voluntary and workers should have the right to return to working from the office.

Some key issues

a) Employment status

Principle: Teleworking should not be an excuse for weakening of the employment conditions. Employee status must be maintained.

Issues: There is perhaps a risk that companies who decide to go as far as contemplating flexible teleworking arrangements will be tempted to go one step further, and review also the contractual relationship with individual teleworker - in other words, to replace employees and outsource work to independent consultants. This was the case in the early 1980s with a pilot telework scheme run by the United Kingdom firm Rank Xerox. It was also an issue with another early telework programme, in California (see box)

In 1982, California Western States Life Insurance Company offered some of its insurance-claims processors the opportunity to do their work at home instead of in the office. They would become contractors, paid by a piece rate and given no benefits. On December 1, 1985, eight of the women quit their jobs and filed a suit against the company, claiming that the independent contracting arrangement was simply a subterfuge to avoid paying them benefits. The case was settled by the company in 1988 out of court, for an undisclosed sum. The telework programme was terminated.

[Source: Across the Board, April 1987]

'Pseudo' self-employment has been a problem in some countries with traditional sweatshop-type homeworking. In many countries, companies save on social security and other costs if workers can be claimed to be self-employed.

For a discussion on the position of legitimately self-employed teleworkers, see below.

b) Partial home-working only

Principle: home teleworkers should also work part of their time from a conventional office.

"Human abilities and professional skills develop through social relations. An isolated work environment cannot be compensated for by intensifying family contacts... For these reasons and because social benefits are lacking, only doing telehomeworking is to be rejected."

[Telearbeit: Vorschläge zur Gestaltung, GPA (Austria), 1996]

Issues: In general, the requirements of good management suggests that this principle is in employers' interests too. It is a feature of most existing collective agreements on teleworking.

However, in the longer term moves by companies to save on property costs may mean that teleworkers' desk space disappears, to be replaced by arrangements such as 'hot desking'. Companies are less likely to need regular office attendance from lower-status teleworkers performing routine work (such as telesales or telemarketing).

c) Voluntary teleworking and the right to return

Principle: teleworking must be the voluntary choice of the employee. Teleworkers must have the right to return to the conventional workplace.

Issues: This principle could be under threat in the longer term by moves by companies to close offices (see, for example, the case of Digital UK and its Newmarket office - previous section). The situation will also change as and when companies begin direct recruitment of new teleworking employees, rather than simply inviting existing employees to work from home.

The 'right to return' is important not only for employees who find that homeworking does not work out for them but also for those who face the loss of their home through personal changes (separation, divorce etc).

Employers who have incurred capital costs, such as from the installation of ISDN or data lines to houses, may be less inclined to allow workers to return to the former workplace.

d) Equipment and space

Principle: employers should provide teleworkers with necessary work equipment, meeting full health and safety requirements.

"The teleworker's equipment at home should be equivalent to that used at the principal place of work. The employer should pay for office furniture and the electronic equipment needed by the teleworker for his/her home-based job. He/she should also ensure that the home-based workplace is properly organised for the technical equipment (electric earth connection, telephone, etc)."

[Med Jobbet På Distans, TCO (Sweden) 1996]

"Another critical point is the question of liability for equipment in the home... The invasion of the home by work can be an expensive matter if children try to find out if computers like cocoa."

[Gabi Seum, speech to HBV national assembly Feb 29, 1996]


There is a risk that home-based workers will make do with inappropriate home furniture - kitchen chairs, tables, etc - rather than using proper ergonomically designed office furniture. This can considerably increase the risk of muscular-skeletal disorders, such as upper limb disorders/repetitive stress injuries.

There is a danger that employers will feel that they can cast off outdated computer equipment or office equipment on to home workers.

e) Remuneration of expenses

Principle: The employer should meet the additional costs faced by home-based teleworkers.

Issues: Existing teleworking agreements show wide variation in this area. On the one hand, for example, Digital Italy has agreed to pay a one-off amount of 2.1m lira as an expenses refund. On the other, some employers offer no compensation for employees' additional expenses, sometimes claiming spuriously that teleworkers are able to benefit from savings on commuting costs.

The use of part of one's home for work for an employer involves not just the obvious additional costs (heating and lighting bills, wear and tear, etc), but also the less easily quantifiable 'opportunity cost' - in other words, the fact that by using space for work it is not available for other uses.

f) The right to a private life

Principle: Teleworkers should be able to make a clear break between their work and private lives.

Issues: One of the problems with home-based working is that of workaholism. Employees may undertake company work in their own time 'just to get it finished'.

There is a separate issue facing home-based workers who are 'on call', or who are called upon by employers to help meet peak workload problems. Clearly the danger here is that the worker on stand-by is unable to carry on with their ordinary lives but will not necessarily be recompensed adequately if they are not, in fact, required.

The flexibility associated with teleworking may encourage a tendency towards the increasing segmentation of the working day, with individuals expected to work for a series of shorter periods interspersed throughout the day, perhaps to meet peak demand times. Clearly this sort of segmentation is generally a very unsatisfactory alternative to a clear work/non-work division of time.

"Teleservices may in certain circumstances be provided around the clock, as is the case for telesurveillance. If the number of calls received is low, staff will not be required to spend nights or weekends on the premises; instead, calls will automatically be re-routed to the home of the employee who is on duty. Any rostering system of this kind which requires somebody to remain on duty in their homes has to be specified in the contract of employment and must be the subject of negotiations."

[Le Télétravail, UCC-CFDT, April 1996]

g) Surveillance and inspection issues

Principle: The need for inspection of working conditions by trade union representatives and health and safety inspectors should not conflict with teleworkers' right to privacy.

Issues: This area needs careful consideration. Most negotiated home-teleworking agreements accept that, if employers are to meet their obligations to ensure a safe working environment for their staff, they must also have the right to access to the home workplace. Most trade unions have also insisted on writing in the right of union or works council representatives and of labour/health and safety inspectors to visit the home. However, arrangements should be made in conjunction with the individual concerned rather than being imposed on them.

Employers potentially have access to a range of electronic surveillance methods which enable them to monitor employees' performance at a distance. These include key-stroke monitoring, telephone call accounting and recording and also - at least potentially - video surveillance of staff whilst at work. In each case, this information can be stored in digital form.

When carried out on employers' premises, these methods raise legitimate concerns for workers' privacy. When the worker is based in their own home, such concerns are even more relevant.

The issue was the subject of an International Labour Office report, Workers Privacy (Conditions of Work Digest, vol 12, 1/1993). FIET was instrumental in organising an international conference in 1985, which established trade union guidelines on personnel data collection and processing systems.

"Workers' rights to privacy should be treated as a fundamental

human rights issue."

[Concluding remarks, ILO: Workers Privacy, Conditions of Work Digest vol 12, 1/1993]

h) Childcare

Principle: Home teleworking cannot be carried out at the same time as childcare

Issues: Parents and carers may benefit from teleworking, provided they are given greater flexibility in establishing their working hours (eg, to tie in with children's hours in school). This is more likely when teleworkers are higher-status and able to work off-line, rather than undertaking lower-status work permanently on-line.

Teleworking does not eliminate the need for proper childcare arrangements to be organised.

"The parties agree that teleworking is not a substitute for childcare or any other form of dependant care. Telstra's policy on childcare provisions continues to apply. Employees are responsible for ensuring that appropriate childcare or dependant care arrangements are in place whilst engaged in teleworking."

[clause in the collective telework agreement between Telstra Corporation Ltd and the Communication Workers' Union of Australia, 1994]

This is considered further below, in the context of equal opportunities issues.

i) Isolation and career development

Principle: Procedures must be instituted to protect teleworkers from the dangers of isolation and depression. This is a health and safety issue. Teleworkers must be given opportunities to progress their careers.

Issues: There is some evidence that isolation can begin to be a problem in the longer-term (after a number of years), after the initial 'honeymoon' period of teleworking is over.

Practical arrangements for providing training for home-based teleworkers need to be spelled out in telework agreements. Teleworkers miss out on the peer education and informal mentoring which goes on in conventional workplaces.

"The teleworker no longer has access to the kind of informal training that people acquire in contact and discussion with their colleagues at work, and it is therefore vital that they maintain their skills, given that the tools of their trade (hardware and software) change very quickly."

[Le Télétravail, UCC-CFDT, April 1996]

j) Freedom of association. Access to trade unions

Principle: Teleworkers should continue to have access to trade unions.

Issues: Trade unions/works councils should ensure that they are given details of each teleworking employee, with address. Unions should have the right to communicate directly with employees through the company's e-mail and electronic communications systems.

Teleworkers should have the opportunity to stand for union positions, and to undertake duties as union representatives.

"To work at home and also be a union representative ought not to create any problems as long as the home-based work is not full time"

[Med Jobbet På Distans, TCO (Sweden) 1996]

Guidelines for Telecommuting Trials [extract from]

* union's right to inspect home workstations for safety and ergonomics

* telecommuters to be advised routinely of job openings and advancement opportunities

* a message from the union to telecommuters when they enter the system, and assurance that telecommuters will be given time regularly to consult with union stewards

[Communication Workers of America, in Working in America vol 17, no 11, Nov 1992. Quoted in Teleworking in the Virtual Enterprise by Vittorio Di Martino, European Commission workshop on Teleworking, 24-25 April 1995]

Teleworking and the self-employed

Detailed guidelines and codes of practice for teleworking which cover the above issues are of little or no value if the person undertaking the telework is not in an employee relationship with an employer. It is clear from research carried out that considerable numbers of home-based teleworkers are self-employed. The growing number of self-employed people in many countries of the developed world can be seen as another manifestation of the development of new flexible working practices.

We have looked already at the problems of pseudo self-employment, where employers attempt to shed their employment responsibilities. As the GPA (Austria) puts it, "There is no direct protection of economically independent suppliers of telework. However 'independence' often exists only on paper. Frequently, there is no real entrepreneurial freedom or realistic chance of earning profits." [Telearbeit: Vorschläge zur Gestaltung, GPA (Austria), 1996].

Whilst pseudo self-employment particularly threatens the interests of low-paid, low-status workers, self-employed teleworking by itself, however, need not be undesirable. This is the case particularly for higher-status workers who have the skills to manage their own business affairs.

Teleworking is in many respects simply a new name for what has traditionally been the way of working practised, for example, by self-employed writers and authors, translators, graphic designers, journalists etc. Whilst the technology may have changed (eg from typewriters and envelopes to PCs and fax machines), the method of working has not.

But the numbers of home-based self-employed people is increasing. Some professional workers who may have chosen, or found themselves obliged, to take redundancy or early retirement are now using their existing skills and contacts to develop their own freelance businesses on a consultancy basis.

In some industries (for example, the theatre and the media), there is a tradition of these self-employed workers being unionised. There are cases of their unions fighting on their behalf to ensure that their self-employed status was maintained, in the face on attempts by tax authorities to reclassify them as employees.

Two examples from Britain:

* The National Union of Journalists helped a self-employed member Margaret Leslie defend her right for casual shifts in newspaper offices to be treated as self-employed work

* Equity successfully backed two stage actors in a 1993 test case after the British tax authorities attempted to treat them as employees.

Even where the self-employed flourish by their own hard work or entrepreneurial skills, however, they will still be unable at a fundamental level to control their rates of remuneration and profit. Whatever the theoretical models of competition given in economics textbooks, individuals and very small businesses have in practice little power to control the markets they are in. Like employees, they too have a need for collective action to defend their interests.

Trade unions should consider ways of recruiting and supporting the growing number of self-employed teleworkers.

ILO Convention on Homeworking

The working conditions of homeworkers, including homeworkers using new technology, are now the subject of an ILO Convention, passed (despite considerable opposition from employers' representatives) at the 1996 International Labour Conference.

The Convention, and an associated set of recommendations on home work, covers employees and the pseudo self-employed, but not the genuinely self-employed (what the Convention describes as a person with 'the degree of autonomy and of economic independence to be considered an independent worker under national laws, regulations or court decisions').

Whilst the Convention is of relevance to the theme of this report, its areas of concern do not exactly coincide with teleworking: not every homeworker is a teleworker, neither is every teleworker a homeworker.

Member states which ratify the Convention are obliged to set up national policies on home work. Under Article 4 of the Convention, such a policy 'shall promote, as far as possible, equality of treatment between homeworkers and other wage earners'. The Article specifies the following areas:

- the homeworkers' right to establish or join organisations of their own choosing and to participate in the activities of such organisations

- protection against discrimination in employment and occupation

- protection in the field of occupational safety and health

- remuneration

- statutory social security protection

- access to training

- minimum age for admission to employment or work; and

-maternity protection.


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