Teleworking under debate

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A recent study indicates that teleworking is still extremely limited in Portugal - a fact that may explain why this form of work has only recently begun to make its appearance on the social partners' agendas and why businesses have not shown any evidence of taking a strategic viewpoint on the issue. However, in late 2000 teleworking is starting to come under debate by trade unions, with some seeking bargaining on the issue and others taking a more negative view.

Portugal has recently seen a substantial campaign to promote teleworking conducted by associations and other bodies interested in its development. Criticisms have sometimes been aimed at the absence of effective public initiatives in the telework field and of measures designed to support this form of work organisation. Although teleworking has not so far been an issue for negotiations between the social partners, in autumn 2000 the trade unions are looking at this subject more carefully and some are incorporating it in their agenda for consideration in the near future.

A recent study provides some data on teleworking in Portugal. The study, entitled Telework in Portugal (O teletrabalho em Portugal) was carried out with the backing of the Institute of Employment and Vocational Training (Instituto do Emprego e da Formação Profissional, IEFP) (attached to the Ministry of Labour and Solidarity) and the European Social Fund ( ESF). It describes teleworking as a form of work that is a paradigm of the "information society". It defines it as involving the combination of: a specific way of carrying out work, using technology-based equipment and services supported by telecommunications; and a legal format that presupposes the existence of a relationship in which the place of work, working time and the worker/employer relationship are more flexible than usual. This definition does not differ greatly from that used by the European Commission, or that used in Portugal's 1997 Green Paper on the information society.

Statistics on teleworking

In 1994, the "Bangemann Report" on Europe and the global information society made a number of recommendations to the European Council, singling out the promotion of telework as one of 10 priority measures required to develop the information society. It set out an objective of attaining a level of 10 million teleworkers in the European Union by the year 2000. This would imply 180,000 teleworkers in Portugal, if it were to meet its proportion of the overall figure, but this figure is far from having been reached. The new study gives an estimate of the real situation in 1997, based on a sample of 637 companies, employing a total of around 163,000 workers, out of a Portuguese working population of 4,669,000. The table below sets out the number of teleworkers in these companies:

Number of teleworkers in sample of Portuguese firms, 1997
Company size (No. of employees) No. of companies Average no. of employees Total no. of employees No. of teleworkers employed Teleworkers as % of total
1-9 34 3.46 118 10 2.61%
10-49 222 19.6 4,342 80 0.50%
50-99 149 68.8 10,257 59 0.20%
100-199 78 138.6 10,808 13 0.06%
200-499 70 301.8 21,124 35 0.04%
500 78 1,488.3 116,091 11 0.01%
Other 6 . . . .
Total 637 . 162,739 208 0.08%

O teletrabalho em Portugal.

Extrapolating this data on the basis of statistics on the total working population (4,669,000) and the total number of employees (4,358,000) in 1994, the study estimates that there were between 11,309 and 12,980 teleworkers. It therefore concludes that in 1997 Portugal had approximately 12,000 teleworkers.

The teleworking employment relationship

The signatories of the tripartite 1996-9 Strategic Concertation Pact (Acordo de Concertação Estratégica) (PT9808190F) considered teleworking as a form of work that might lead to the creation of precarious employment if it were not linked with measures designed to prevent this and to promote a secure working relationship. They therefore recommended that adequate legislation on teleworking be created, but to date this has not come about and Portugal currently does not possess specific legislation covering this form of work (TN9811201S).

The Strategic Concertation Pact's "general background" section states that teleworking might develop into an innovative means of organising work. It says that the government and the social partners are prepared to support pilot projects in in the areas of teleworking and telework networks, as well as related self-employment projects and pilot business projects designed to improve living and working conditions through the use of information and telecommunication technologies.

The position of the social partners

Neither the General Workers' Union (União Geral dos Trabalhadores, UGT) nor the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP) have so far proposed concrete measures relating to teleworking. Nor do they see teleworking as something that will lead to any changes in the way the trade unions will be organised in the future (though the Northern Bank Employees' Union [Sindicato dos Bancários da Zona Norte, SBZN] has stated that the physical dispersion of teleworkers could cause severe problems for this union).

However, since its last congress in May 2000 (PT0005193F) UGT has been calling for regulation of teleworking, not just at national but also at EU level (EU0007259N). It says that the two levels should be articulated and that the following subjects should be issues for negotiation:

  • employment contracts;
  • social protection;
  • the definition of working hours and timetables;
  • health and safety at work;
  • the promotion of equal opportunities;
  • greater inspection of home-based work;
  • the inter-relationship between multi-skilling, training and career structures; and
  • the development of training plans

UGT sees collective bargaining and social dialogue over teleworking as a means of reconciling businesses' needs with workers' needs and family life.

For CGTP, the changes in the way that businesses and their productive processes are organised that have occurred over the past few years have had significant quantitative and qualitative effects on employment. Examples of such developments include: recruitment on fixed-term contracts or for uncertain periods; the increase in part-time work; the appearance of teleworking as a result of the development of information technologies; subcontracting; and self-employment. However, according to this union, teleworking appears not to be common in Portugal and it is therefore not necessary to include the subject on its agenda. CGT primarily sees teleworking negatively as a form of work that evades the normal employment relationship – which is the only one that makes it possible to ensure workers' rights

From the employers' point of view, it would appear that businesses are not fully aware of teleworking and of the need to adapt their structures to this new form of working. This view is supported by a recent study from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Deployment of telework in European public administrations, 1999) which finds that "telework has not gained much importance as a mode of work organisation, especially not regarding high-skill jobs performed in a framework of relative high independence regarding status and interaction with the work environment or customers". The reasons identified for this "resistance towards telework" are not just deficits in technology and expertise, but also the issue of supervision - many managers still feel the need for "supervision, control and visibility".

Businesses hope that the government will support the creation of conditions that will foster teleworking. The IEFP study also reveals a certain lack of knowledge of, and strategies in relation to, teleworking on the part of the employers' organisations it consulted. This may be one of the reasons why their members are not clear on, or informed about, the issue.


According to Stephen S Fuller, a US economist, debates about the "new economy", "information economy" or "knowledge-based economy" should include the need for a new "institutional framework conducive to entrepreneurial activity and innovation, and a workforce capable of functioning efficiently and competitively in a knowledge-based, technology-intensive economy". However, the results of the recent IEFP study imply that Portugal is taking a "wait and see" attitude towards the future of teleworking and the form that teleworkers' industrial relations will take, although some parties do recognise the need to pass specific legislation governing this form of work and to conduct negotiations in relation to it. (Ana Almeida and Maria Luisa Cristovam, UAL)

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