Telework in Austria

The first collective agreements in Austria that included provisions on telework were concluded in the oil and gas industries at the end of the 1990s. Since then, the incidence of telework has increased across all sectors of the economy, while public interest in this form of work has declined. This article looks at the extent of telework in Austria and explores the progress in implementing the EU framework agreement on telework, concluded by the European social partners in 2002.

Definition and prevalence of telework

No statutory or collectively agreed uniform definition exists of telework in Austria. This is related to the fact that the issue of telework is not regulated in a systematic and consistent way by Austrian legislation but in a rather occasional and marginal manner by different laws.

The most general and common definition denotes telework as a form of work which, on a regular basis, is carried out away from the premises of an employer, using information and communication technologies (ICT). Nonetheless, the work does not have to be performed in the context of an employment relationship; in line with this notion, a self-employed person or a service provider in an employee-like relationship, who undertakes paid work on behalf of an employer, can also be considered as a teleworker.

Regarding employment relationships, a definition of telework presented by the Union of Salaried Employees, Graphical Workers and Journalists (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, Druck, Journalismus, Papier, GPA-DJP) was included in the collective framework agreement for white-collar workers in the sectors covered by the trade union; the agreement was concluded in 1998. This framework agreement, which the social partners considered to be a ‘model’ agreement in relation to telework, provides a definition which, by and large, corresponds to that of the 2002 European framework agreement on telework (107Kb PDF):

Telework is given if the workplace of an employee is located in premises which do not belong to the employing company, in particular the employee’s home, and if the use of new information and communication technology is decisive for organising and/or performing the work.

Increase in the incidence of telework

Since the early 2000s, public attention and research interest in telework has significantly declined in Austria, despite a continuous increase in this form of work. This fact has been referred to as ‘tacit telework’, which means that – although the issue appears to be out of fashion – telework has become a natural part of many people’s work routine over the last years. In terms of statistical documentation, the lack of public interest in telework led the national statistical office, Statistik Austria, to cancel all questions regarding this form of work in its micro census surveys in 2003. The most recent available figures therefore refer to 2002.

According to Statistik Austria, to determine whether a form of work is actually telework, the extent employees use ICT to deliver their work products and how much time they spend using ICT must be ascertained. On this basis, Statistik Austria has established the following three definitions of telework.

  1. Work is performed in the own home or at premises not related to the employer company with a personal computer (PC) for at least one working day – that is, eight hours – a week. Work products are submitted through data communication, telephone or fax.
  2. Work is performed in the own home or at premises not related to the employer company with a PC for at least one hour a week. Work products are submitted exclusively through data communication.
  3. As definition 2, work products are submitted through data communication, telephone or fax.

It is important to note, however, that these definitions cover all people in paid employment, including both employees and self-employed persons.

Table 1: Incidence of telework, 1999 and 2002
This table outlines the incidence of telework in absolute numbers of workers in 1999 and 2002, as well as a percentage of people in paid employment in 2002, according to Statistik Austria’s definitions of telework.
Definition of telework Working hours a week Mode of submission Numbers of workers in 1999 Numbers of workers in 2002 % of people in paid employment
1 At least 8 Through data communication, phone or fax 21,800 57,800 1.6%
2 At least 1 Only through data communication 30,900 77,700 2.2%
3 At least 1 Through data communication, phone or fax 51,600 140,600 3.9%

Sources: Federal Ministry of Economy and Labour Affairs (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Arbeit, BMWA); Statistik Austria

A breakdown of data by specific characteristics of employees involved is not available. Almost 10 years ago, in 1998, a micro census survey carried out by Statistik Austria provided a breakdown by sex and age: in 1998, the proportion of female teleworkers accounted for 19%. Some 36% of these women were aged between 25 and 34 years, while 40% of them were aged between 35 and 44 years. Male teleworkers were most strongly represented in the 25–34 year age group, accounting for 35% of the men concerned; the figures for the older age groups of 35–44 years and 45–54 years were 28% and 25%, respectively.

The 1998 survey also revealed that teleworkers are, on average, highly skilled, with a share of 29% having a university-level education; this proportion amounts to 40% among female teleworkers.

More than 70% of teleworkers in Austria are engaged in several branches of the private services sector, particularly in business-related services, commerce, education, financial and insurance activities, and health and social services. Since no more recent figures are available, there is no indication of developments at sectoral level.

Regulatory framework

Legal provisions

In Austria, the social partners have largely implemented the provisions of the European framework agreement on telework concluded under Article 139 EC, by including clauses on telework in the majority of Austria’s sectoral and industry-wide collective agreements. Thus, an estimated 80% of all private sector employees are covered by such collectively agreed provisions on telework. In general, these regulations are more comprehensive in relation to the voluntary 2002 EU framework agreement. Therefore, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) has always emphasised that the EU framework agreement is setting absolute minimum standards, so that the usually higher level of regulation in Austria should not be questioned.

In order to make the EU framework agreement legally binding for all employees in the country, trade unions have sought to include encompassing rights of teleworkers in the Labour Constitution Act (Arbeitsverfassungsgesetz, ArbVG), similarly to the legal provision in Article 97/1 of the ArbVG on temporary agency work. Since the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKO) strictly opposes any legally binding regulations laid down by national law, this initiative has failed so far. Therefore, in the private sector the 2002 EU framework agreement on telework has not yet led to any legislative amendments in Austria.

Regarding the public sector, a 2004 amendment to the 1979 Act on Service Regulations of Career Public Servants (Beamtendienstrechtsgesetz, BDG) and an amendment of the same year to the 1948 Act on Service Regulations of Contract Public Servants (Vertragsbedienstetengesetz, VBG) ruled that public servants may – under certain circumstances – perform their work or part of their work outside of the employer’s premises as teleworkers. The new legislation came into effect on 1 January 2005.

Collective agreements

The first ever collective agreements that contained a clause on telework were concluded in April 1997, by representatives of the WKO and the then Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) covering employees in the oil and gas industries. These agreements stipulated that all employees involved in telework were fully covered by the Employee Protection Act (Arbeitnehmerschutzgesetz, ASchG) and that all expenditure resulting from the dislocation of the workplace had to be borne by the employer. Furthermore, telework had to be based on a voluntary agreement between the employer and the employee, which became part of the individual’s contract of employment.

To date, most collective agreements have adopted at least these provisions regarding telework. In fact, the vast majority of collective agreements stipulate that the voluntary agreement of the parties to the individual contract of employment has to be in written form and contain detailed regulations in terms of the workplace, working hours, equipment, expenses allowances, liabilities, the form of contact that the teleworker has to maintain with the company and the time frame of telework.

Regulatory issues

There is no specific legislation on the issue of telework in Austria. According to widespread opinion, labour law, in particular the ASchG, is generally applicable to teleworkers, given that they are legally employed under the terms of the ArbVG. However, problems may emerge in the event that the employment status of a teleworker is not clear, for example, in relation to the boundary between teleworkers and homeworkers; the latter do not fall under the category of employees in Austria.

The Austrian social partners believe that they are in charge of implementing the provisions of the voluntary 2002 EU framework agreement on telework. Until now, the vast majority of collective agreements, which are concluded almost exclusively at sectoral or industry level in Austria, have adopted certain provisions on telework. However, talks at the highest organisational level between the social partners concerning a full implementation of the EU framework agreement failed in 2005. The proposed expansion would have implied covering the country’s whole economy, namely the private and public sectors.

On 15 July 2005, the main employer organisations – the WKO, the Federation of Austrian Industry (Industriellenvereinigung, IV) and the Association of Public Enterprises (Verband der Öffentlichen Wirtschaft und Gemeinwirtschaft Österreichs; VÖWG) – presented a joint implementation guideline with respect to the European framework agreement on telework. This guideline is meant to help companies, in particular those that are not covered by a collective agreement providing for telework, to implement the framework agreement.

The legislative framework concerning telework has not changed significantly over the past 10 years. However, the collectively agreed regulation has changed considerably, insofar as 10 years ago almost no collective agreement included provisions on telework; moreover, the quality of collectively agreed regulation has improved over the past years.

Employment and working conditions

Teleworkers are, in principle, covered by the same legal and collectively agreed regulations which apply to employees working at the employer’s premises. More specifically, this holds true for the White-Collar Workers’ Act (Angestelltengesetz, AnG), the Workers’ Leave Act (Urlaubsgesetz, UrlG), the Working Time Act (Arbeitszeitgesetz, AZG), the Act on Rest Periods (Arbeitsruhegesetz, ARG) and the Equal Treatment for Men and Women Act (Gleichbehandlungsgesetz). However, apart from the provisions in the BDG and the VBG allowing public employees to perform telework, there is no specific legislation for teleworkers, not to mention in terms of a specific protection against discrimination. A different treatment of teleworkers compared with that of standard workers is only lawful in cases where certain company-related benefits originate from the physical presence of the employee at the employer’s premises, such as the use of company parking places or the provision of canteen food.

In terms of data protection, right of privacy, access to training, health and safety and collective rights, teleworkers are subject to the same regulations as workers at the employer’s premises. With regard to data protection, the employer has to instruct the teleworker about relevant company rules and rules about the private use of equipment and facilities provided by the company. As regards the right of privacy for teleworkers who perform their work in their own home, according to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights the labour inspectorate is entitled to monitor the working conditions of teleworkers in their private premises only if they explicitly give their consent for doing so.

Since the ArbVG is generally applicable to teleworkers, they enjoy the same collective rights as employees working at the employer’s premises. Therefore, teleworkers are entitled to both vote for works council elections and stand for these elections. Correspondingly, teleworkers have to be taken into consideration when it comes to calculating the number of works council members.

Despite the fact that, in principle, labour law is fully applicable to teleworkers and that the vast majority of collective agreements contain binding provisions on telework, trade unions and labour law experts presume that many teleworkers are discriminated against in many respects. This is based on the assumption that there is a tendency among employers to offer teleworkers freelance (or so-called ‘e-lance’) contracts instead of a standard employment contract. In many cases, this is an offence since the employer bypasses commitments stipulated by labour law. Moreover, there is no explicit ban on discrimination against teleworkers in the Austrian labour law, which, for instance, does exist with regard to part-time workers. Thirdly, monitoring the working conditions of teleworkers in an effective way is often not feasible, particularly in small companies without a works council. For these reasons, trade unions suppose that a considerable proportion of teleworkers are discriminated against in terms of extended working hours, low ergonomic standards at their workplace, social isolation in the case of solely home teleworking, a lack of a clear separation between work and private life, insufficient expenses allowances for work-related costs and different levels of social security depending on the type of work contract.

Views of social partners and government

WKO has welcomed the 2002 EU framework agreement on telework, since it does not restrict the necessary flexibility of teleworkers by ‘over-regulation’. In general, the chamber considers telework as a form of flexible and modern work organisation which may help enterprises to become more productive and competitive. In order to maintain this flexibility, the employer organisation has refused to introduce a nationwide, uniform legal regulation on telework, as demanded by the trade unions. In contrast to WKO, the other two employer organisations, IV and VÖWG, would have accepted the introduction of specific legal regulations on telework. Apart from this, IV has adopted similar positions to those of WKO, but it criticises the insufficient use of telework. It sees the main advantages of telework in the flexible use of workers, irrespective of their place of living and individual working time arrangements.

On the trade union side, ÖGB has adopted a more differentiated position. On the one hand, it acknowledges the creation of new opportunities for teleworkers in terms of their work-life balance. On the other hand, ÖGB, in line with the Chamber of Labour (Arbeiterkammer, AK), highlights a series of threats for workers adopting this form of work: telework may contribute to increased work pressure, especially in the case where an employer demands scheduled work results, regardless of the working hours required for a good work performance. Moreover, the separation of the workplace from the employer’s premises may give rise to a tendency of offering freelance contracts rather than standard employment contracts. AK also emphasises that effective co-determination at company level is difficult to achieve if a company employs a certain number of teleworkers scattered over a multitude of different workplaces. Finally, telework brings about serious problems in terms of monitoring and enforcement of labour law and ergonomic regulations.

Commentary

The 2002 EU agreement on telework has paved the way for regulation on telework in Austria, insofar as the density of collectively agreed regulations on telework has significantly increased. In this context, GPA-DJP has been most strongly involved since its first collective agreements on telework in the late 1990s. However, according to GPA-DJP, it remains uncertain how many companies comply with the collectively agreed regulations on telework.

Successive Austrian governments have not felt inclined to launch any policy initiative regarding telework. Since the conclusion of the 2002 EU framework agreement, governments have perceived the regulation of teleworkers’ employment conditions as a typical area for autonomous social partner regulation.

Georg Adam, Department of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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