Teleworking agreement signed in commerce

A new European agreement on guidelines for teleworking in commerce was signed on 26 April 2001 by EuroCommerce, representing the sector's employers, and UNI-Europa Commerce, for trade unions. The new agreement contains detailed guidelines regulating areas such as the introduction of telework, employment conditions, confidentiality, equipment and trade union rights.

The European-level social partners in the commerce sector – EuroCommerce for the employers and UNI-Europa Commerce for trade unions – signed a European agreement on guidelines on telework in commerce on 26 April 2001 in the presence of the Employment and Social Policy Commissioner, Anna Diamantopoulou.

The parties to the accord state that the constantly changing nature of the European economy, of consumer demands and of the needs and aspirations of employees is having an effect on work organisation and job design. They stress that it is important that "any changes in work organisation or job design, which would introduce or change work done form a distance, using new technologies, are carefully organised and introduced.".

For the purposes of the agreement, telework is defined as all tasks which are "comparable to those which could be carried out by an employee at the workplace but which may also be done at a distance, using computer technology, normally connected to the information network of the company". The agreement does not cover telework performed occasionally and relates only to main employment relationships. It recommends a number of detailed guidelines to be followed by the social partners in the commerce in different Member States.

Introduction of telework

The accord states that decisions concerning the introduction or implementation of telework should be made in a way which is transparent and which respects existing information and consultation structures and procedures. Ideally, teleworking arrangements should be designed so that they are favourable to both the employer and the employee.

When introducing telework, measures should be taken to ensure that social contact between the teleworker and the workplace is not lost. This could be achieved through a combination of teleworking and work on company premises. Further, it suggests that "virtual communities" for teleworkers could be created.

If a teleworker wishes to return to an office-based working arrangement, "efforts should be made to make this possible".

Employment conditions

The accord states that teleworkers should have the same rights as office-based employees, including comparable employment rights, remuneration structures and career opportunities. In accordance with EU Directive 91/533/EEC on an employer's obligation to inform employees of the conditions applicable to the contract or employment relationship, the employer should notify a number of employment conditions to the teleworker, including:

  • the identification of the parties involved;
  • the place of regular work (or a statement to the effect that the employee works at a variety of locations) and the registered place of business;
  • the use of premises for telework;
  • a job description;
  • the date of the beginning of the contract or employment relationship;
  • the length of the normal working day or week; and
  • the basic amount of remuneration and other elements of remuneration to which the employee is entitled.

In addition, the parties to the agreement suggest that, in line with good employment relations and working practices, the following areas should be explained to teleworkers:

  • social security protection and insurance;
  • supervision and consultation structures;
  • data protection and confidentiality; and
  • training.

Any legislation, collective agreement provisions or company provisions concerning working time should be applied to teleworkers in a way which takes account of their particular circumstances.

Any absences due to sickness, holidays or any other reasons should be notified in accordance with the general practice of the company. The company should also make sure that any tasks usually performed by the teleworker should be covered in the case of their absence.

Tasks and confidentiality

The agreement states that if the work performed by a teleworker is supervised and monitored, the employer must ensure that "full respect" is given to any legislation or practices which ensure the privacy and integrity of the worker. Particular care should be taken in respect of restrictions on the right to register data.

For their part, teleworkers should respect established rules of confidentiality and take "reasonable steps" to ensure that confidential data cannot be accessed by unauthorised people.

Venue and equipment

The accord notes that the venue for teleworking should, as far as possible, be recognised as equivalent to other working premises of the company. Further, the design of the work station and equipment must, whenever possible, conform to the same regulations as those which apply to equipment on company premises. The employer is responsible for the purchase, installation, servicing and updating of the equipment required for teleworking, although the teleworker should take "reasonable care" of the equipment supplied. A separate clause states that all computer systems should be used only for business purposes and that teleworkers must not distribute illegal, offensive or confidential material via any system or via the internet.

In terms of health and safety, the accord states that health and safety representatives and other employer-nominated representatives should have the right to gain access to and inspect the teleworking venue, after having informed the employee of the visit.

The employer should in general devise a system of compensation for costs generated by teleworking, including insurance to cover damage to the equipment and damage to third parties or the teleworking premises.

Trade union rights

All teleworkers have the right to communicate with their colleagues, using the equipment and facilities provided. This right must include communicating about work-related matters and about labour relations "with the trade union organisation to which to teleworker belongs or with other bona fide personnel representatives". These communications should be confidential – the employer may not have access to them.

Lastly, the accord states that the teleworker must have the same right as office-based employees to participate in any trade union or other personnel activities taking place in the company, although with the proviso that participation in union activities and communications between teleworkers and employee representatives "should not lead to unreasonable costs for the company", in comparison with costs resulting from similar activities in the case of office-based workers.

Commentary

This latest agreement is significant in a number of ways. First, commerce is the EU's largest sector, employing some 23 million workers (16% of the EU workforce). Second, the deal represents a major step forward in the regulation of this area, following on from a recent European-level agreement in the telecommunications sector, signed in February 2001 (EU0102296F). The fact that the new accord is so detailed – regulating all the most important aspects of teleworking, such as rights to return to office-based work, terms and conditions, confidentiality, use of equipment, contact with the organisation, health and safety and trade union rights – means that it may serve as a blueprint both for other sectors and perhaps for a European-level framework accord. Commerce has a particularly well-developed European social dialogue process (EU9807115F), which has produced a variety of joint texts in the past (EU0005243N)

Commissioner Diamantopoulou commented that: "The social partners in the commerce sector have sent a clear message that action at Community level can help in setting up a framework for new forms of work organisation such as telework. By concluding this European agreement, the social partners in commerce are demonstrating that the largest European private sector in terms of employment is fully committed to both the challenges of the knowledge society and to improving employment potential and competitiveness in Europe. I firmly hope that other sectors and cross-sector social partners find inspiration in this accord."

The social partners at European intersectoral level will, in all probability, look at this issue in the coming months. The European Commission issued a second social partner consultation paper on teleworking in March 2001 (EU0104205N), following hard on the heels of the announcement by the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe ( UNICE) that it was prepared to enter into European-level social partner negotiations with the aim of concluding a non-legally binding agreement on the issue (EU0103203F). While the idea of a voluntary rather than a binding accord is problematic for the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), there is no doubt that this issue will be one of the social partners' main focuses in the months to come. (Andrea Broughton, IRS)

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