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

Summary and conclusions

Teleworking can be defined as 'distance working facilitated by information and communication technologies'.

The term incorporates both home-based working and remote working in back offices and data processing centres. Home-based teleworking itself can be sub-categorised, to include higher-status professionals likely to be working off-line and lower-status staff more likely to be working permanently on-line (and therefore more under the control of the technology). Self-employed home-based workers make up a further category.

A single trade union response to 'teleworking' is therefore not advised. The individual's experience of teleworking can be either predominantly negative or predominantly positive, depending on a wide range of factors.

Trade unions have identified particular issues of importance for defending the rights of home-based teleworkers. These include the preservation of employment status, voluntary participation in teleworking and the right to return to the workplace, continuation of some degree of workplace working, remuneration of home expenses incurred, the right to privacy and a private life, measures to combat isolation and to promote career development, safe working conditions and appropriate equipment, adequate alternative childcare facilities, and the right of access to the trade union.

Collective teleworking in remote back offices and call centres raises other concerns for trade unions. These include the threat to established employment conditions from the relocation of work. Flexible working and shiftworking is a feature of this type of teleworking. Technology, especially the integration of telephony with IT, is imposing new working conditions on some white collar staff. Flat organisational structures inhibit career development, whilst outsourcing can raise additional concerns.

Teleworking is also taking place internationally, with the relocation of some work to 'offshore' data processing centres, data input centres and telephone call centres. These developments challenge trade unions at both ends of this process of relocation. Evidence suggests that workers undertaking work in offshore centres are primarily women, are probably shift-workers and are unlikely to be unionised. Whilst offshore teleworking raises, in theory, the prospect that developing countries can develop their high-tech sectors, in practice (with the exception of the offshore software engineering industry of India) much of the work remains low-skilled, with little opportunity for workers involved to raise their skill level.

Teleworking in all its forms challenges trade unions to develop new organisational methods of servicing their members' needs. E-mail and on-line services provide important new ways of communicating with members, and the Internet in particular offers great opportunities. Union recruitment strategies need to be reconsidered, to become more attractive to teleworkers and those engaged in other forms of casual and flexible work. Self-employed teleworkers should also be targetted for membership. Trade unions need to widen the range of issues they are concerned with to include issues of interest to teleworkers, including family life and childcare arrangements. Trade unions themselves may be able to benefit by arranging for their own employed officials to telework.

In conclusion, the following proposals are made for further consideration.

- The right to assembly is a fundamental right for all workers. Through the relevant international organisations, trade union bodies need to ensure that the right to assembly continues to be available to those workers who are physically separated and isolated from their colleagues. Electronic means of communication is one substitute for physical meetings. Trade unions should press for a right to use employer e-mail services.

- Teleworking is one of a number of more flexible forms of working, which challenge the paradigm of a 'normal' working week in a 'normal' workplace. Trade union bodies should continue to work in the ILO to develop conventions (such as that passed for homeworkers and proposed for contract workers) which adequately cover these ways of working.

- Trade unions should make better use of on-line technologies, for communicating with members, developing internal democracy and undertaking solidarity work. The use of hypertext links between trade union sites on the World Wide Web provides a way of demonstrating, in very practical form, the concept of trade union internationalism.

- Teleworking offers new opportunities for the globalisation of the service sector. It is more important than ever to develop effective international trade union structures. International links may, a century ago, have been seen primarily as a statement of principle; in the future, this work will be increasingly of direct relevance to individual members' working conditions. Unions in the developed world may wish to undertake solidarity work to assist less well-resourced unions in countries attracting offshore teleworking.

- Teleworking is seen by many as a model of future forms of working in an 'information society'. Trade unions need to campaign to ensure that the benefits of an information society are available to all, and not only to those sections of the world community able to afford to pay for the advantages.

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