Andrew Bibby



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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Telework 2002 conference

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first written for a Danish client, 2002

The series of annual European telework conferences which began in Berlin in 1994 has been brought to a close with a final event, held this Autumn (2002) in Paris.

Several hundred people, including a significant number of trade union representatives from many European countries, met together in the French finance ministry overlooking the river Seine in late September, to take discussions about this new way of working a step further. The conference included workshop sessions on, among other things, industrial relations issues, electronic surveillance in the workplace, and the possibilities offered by telework for rural economic development.

The decision to make this event the last of its kind perhaps marks the emergence of telework into mainstream business practice, a coming-of-age after its time as a fledgling idea. It is probably not coincidental that the conference followed close on the heels of the formal signing between the European social partners of the new Europe-wide Framework Agreement on Telework (see below). This agreement closes a historical period of several years during which trade unions and employers in several European countries, including Denmark, have worked to develop ideas and agreements for good telework practice.

Back in 1994, when the Telework conference first met in the prestigious setting of Berlin's Reichstag, the situation was rather different. The European Commission, which had identified telework as one of a small number of key drivers which would help launch the European Union into the information age, was attempting to encourage its growth, among other things through funding for telework stimulation projects from the European research and development budget.

But little was known about what the practical implications of teleworking would be. According to some, it would offer plenty of benefits, both to individual workers - who could arrange their work-life more flexibly - and to employers who could benefit from greater productivity. But telework, it was also recognised, needed to be introduced in an appropriate way. Trade unions, after a period of initial scepticism, had begun by 1994 to negotiate home-working telework agreements, with the IBM Germany collective agreement an early and important landmark in this respect.

Since Berlin, the annual telework conference has perambulated around European cities, visiting among other places Rome, Vienna, Stockholm, London and Århus before ending up this year in Paris. The decision to make this year's the last such event was effectively taken by the European Commission's Directorate-General for the Information Society, which has played the role of conference godfather. "I have quite deliberately not sought a host for an event of the same nature next year. Nine years is a long time. Breaking this tradition allows new ideas to emerge," the Commission's Peter Johnston told the final plenary.

Framework agreement

The annual cycle of telework conferences may have ended, but the telework story is not yet completely written. Trade union representatives in particular made it clear in Paris that they will be monitoring carefully the implementation of the new Framework Agreement, signed in July in Brussels between the European Trade Union Confederation and the employers' bodies UNICE and CEEP.

The agreement is of considerable significance in the context of European social partnership, since it makes use for the first time of the 'voluntary route' established in Article 139 of the EU Treaty. In other words, the agreement will not as usual be incorporated into the employment law of member states through the usual mechanism of a European directive.

If the telework agreement works well, it is certain to be seen as a model for future social partnership deals. This means, as Hettie Bastiaanse-Schoonewille of the Dutch trade union Vakcentrale Unie told the Paris conference, that the agreement is something of a showcase. She said that her union was positive about the task ahead. "It's good to try it. We're all in favour of less formal agreements," she said. However, she also suggested that the implementation process might not be entirely problem-free. "In the Netherlands, we're talking now about how to implement the Framework Agreement. It could be quite difficult," she said. She also admitted that a traditional Directive would have been an easier route for her union to follow.

Liisa Ödén-Vento of the Swedish union HTF had a similar viewpoint, pointing out that the European Framework Agreement was following up national telework agreements in Sweden negotiated with employers in 1998 and 2000. "We are positive about this agreement, the Framework Agreement is a good thing," she said. But she warned employers that the Agreement was not an optional code which they could choose whether or not to adopt. The text, she pointed out, said that the Agreement will be implemented: her union would be arguing that it was binding, she said.

The potential uncertainty about the exact legal status of the Agreement could yet prove its downfall. Jørgen Rønnest of the Danish Employers Confederation, one of the main negotiators of the Agreement for the employers' side, was also at the Paris conference. The tools for implementation were being left in the hands of social partners at national level, he told his audience, and this could mean significantly different routes would be followed in different countries - national legislation in one country, but just the production of a pamphlet in another, he suggested.

He argued that the new 'voluntary' route permitted under Article 139 was a useful supplement to traditional European social partnership instruments, and saw it as potentially reducing the need for conflicts and litigation. But he accepted that the Agreement would have to be proved to work effectively. "We have to live up to the expectations raised," he said. "If it is not properly adopted, this will be the last sort of agreement of this type". He added that the routes to implementation of the Agreement adopted in the Nordic countries could be particularly significant.

Electronic monitoring in the workplace

Just what sort of rights should employees have over the use they can make of email and the internet in the workplace?

The Paris conference heard from London employment lawyer Stephen Levinson of KLegal who described growing moves by employers in his country to monitor email and internet usage. He referred to a recent survey of 215 British companies, which between them had dismissed 61 members of staff for email or internet related offences in one year alone. "The survey established that employers were taking disciplinary action against staff for misusing email and the internet on more occasions than for dishonesty, violence and heath and safety breaches combined," he said.

Gerhard Rohde of Union Network International reminded his audience of the case of an Australian trade unionist who had initially been sacked for informing her members through company email of the progress of negotiations with the firm (she was reinstated subsequently after a court hearing). He drew attention to UNI's work in drawing up an On-line Rights at Work code of practice. This establishes the right of trade unions and their members to use electronic facilities for industrial relations purposes, and also strictly controls the occasions on which employers can monitor electronic records of email and internet usage. The Code had already been utilised for collective agreements in a number of countries, including France, Germany and Holland, he said.

A very similar approach to UNI's was recommended by Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin of the Internet Rights Forum in France. She told the conference that the Forum, established a year ago, had produced a set of recommendations for French companies, including the suggestion that network administrators should be bound by a code of professional secrecy in relation to the data they collected on employee use of the internet and email. She argued that a complete ban on private use of email at work could well be illegal in the French context.

Leif Limkilde Bloch, from Danish trade union HK, also drew the attention of conference delegates to the work recently undertaken in this area in Denmark. The new agreement, which allowed limited private use of electronic facilities in the workplace, applied to a large minority of HK's membership, he said.

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