Telework on the Norwegian social partners' agenda

The apparent growth of teleworking in recent years is becoming an issue of increasing importance on the social partners' agenda in Norway in early 1998. The existing statutory provisions, as well as collective agreements, are regarded by many as inadequate for this type of work. This is particularly the case for home-based teleworking, which seems to be completely unregulated.

Teleworking (fjernarbeidor telependling) is becoming an issue of increasing importance on the agenda of the Norwegian social partners. Home-based teleworking is the main focus of attention. Although the level of home-based telework activity has remained relatively constant in the last 10 years, it is expected to increase in the future. The existing statutory provisions, as well as collective agreements, are regarded by many as inadequate for this type of work, and home-based teleworking in particular seems to be completely unregulated. A declaration on teleworking has been incorporated into the new Basic Agreement between the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) and the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, NHO), which was formally ratified in February 1998. The legal state of affairs in relation to teleworking is also undergoing scrutiny, and the likely outcome is amendments to the 1977 Working Environment Act.

Telework on the increase in Norway

Paid work in the home is not a new phenomenon, but the nature and the scope of such work has changed with the advent of more advanced telecommunications technology. A recent survey by Statistics Norway on behalf of the research department of the public telecom network operator Telenor, Telenor Research and Development, shows that almost 8% of employees spend at least five hours a week working from home (according to survey data provided by Telenor Research and Development, expected to be published in a report in April 1998). There is also an increasing awareness among employees about the possibilities inherent in home-based teleworking. In a survey by the Norwegian Customer Satisfaction Research Institute (Markeds- og Mediainstituttet, MMI) conducted in 1995, approximately four out of 10 employees expressed a wish to be able to work at home.

The recognition that teleworking is becoming more widespread has given rise to a series of initiatives to deal properly with the issue. One such initiative is the National Information Networks (NIN), chaired by the Research Council of Norway, and with a broad representation from various Norwegian institutions including the major social partners, NHO and LO. NIN has proposed a teleworking development programme, and pilot projects have been initiated involving several large companies. The Norwegian oil company Statoil, among others, has agreed to provide employees with free home PCs for this propose. Working groups have been established by NIN, including one on" telework and labour legislation", to discuss and formulate policies.

The regulatory framework

In Norway, employer/employee relationships are carefully regulated by a complex set of laws, provisions and agreements. However, both existing statutory provisions and existing collective agreements have been criticised as being inadequate to accommodate the phenomenon of teleworking, and home-based teleworking in particular is completely unregulated.

The general view is that the Working Environment Act (AML) can be applied to telework activity, but it is questionable whether it is applicable to home-based teleworking. Home-based work in general originally came under the 1918 Act on Industrial Home-based Work, but this provision was abolished in 1995. Other provisions were incorporated with the purpose of making possible the application of the AML to home-based work, but nothing has so far been done to follow up this legal possibility. This, and related problems, have been dealt with by the NIN working group on telework and labour legislation, which is led by a professor of public law, Henning Jakhelln. The group produced a report in 1996 on the legal aspects of teleworking ("Fjernarbeid og arbeidsrett", H Jakhelln and John W Bakke (eds.), Scientific Report, TF-Rapport 33/96), and one of its proposals is to make the Working Environment Act binding on home-based work in general. The Ministry of Labour and Government Administration is also presently working on a similar proposal, and a Green Paper is expected for consideration some time in 1998.

The Basic Agreement between LO and NHO has traditionally been relatively silent on the issue of teleworking, but a "joint declaration on telework" is incorporated in the revised agreement for the period 1998-2001 (NO9711134F). The declaration contains the two social partners' agreement on the existence of problems connected to teleworking, and a common commitment to monitor closely the future development of teleworking through studies and dialogues. A joint committee will look at the different aspects of teleworking, and propose changes to the existing legal framework and collective agreements. The issue has also been relatively absent at sector level, and at present teleworking takes place without any written agreements or other formal arrangements. Several federations, however, are in the process of working out policies concerning teleworking in the light of the forthcoming wage negotiations.

The views of the social partners

The general view among the social partners is that teleworking is here to stay, and for that reason it has to be taken seriously. LO recognises the opportunities for its members inherent in teleworking, although with some caution. LO has worked for a long time to persuade the Ministry of Labour and Government Administration to ratify the 1996ILO Convention on home work. The ratification would imply an extension of the Working Environment Act to accommodate home-based teleworking. Furthermore, all individual agreements on this issue, according to LO, must be regulated by collective agreements, especially in those sectors where teleworking is becoming more widespread such as telecommunication.

The notion of framework collective agreements on teleworking is expected to be an issue during the 1998 bargaining round, and at least three LO-affiliated unions have expressed a wish to raise the question during the negotiations. These are the Norwegian Union of Employees in Commerce and Offices (Handel og Kontor, HK), Norwegian Union of Information Technology Employees (Tele- og Dataforbundet) and the Norwegian Oil and Petrochemical Workers' Union (Norsk olje- og petrokjemisk fagforbund, NOPEF). These federations have been working out strategies and preparing their demands for the forthcoming negotiations. HK is aiming for a general agreement for its members concerning home-based work, which will provide guidelines and allow members the right to individual agreements with their employers.

NHO sees teleworking as a positive contribution to a more flexible organisation of working life, but is reluctant to see a centralisation of control by the authorities. Nor does it wish to see any changes in the present legal framework. NHO stresses the need for local solutions to what it sees as purely local issues, since different enterprises have different needs in this regard.

Commentary

The question of teleworking is part of the wider debate on flexibility and work organisation, and the impact of modern technology on social relations in the Norwegian system. Most of the social partners involved in this debate take as their point of departure that flexibility is desirable, but the question remains about the types of flexible arrangements to be stressed, and to whom they should apply. Trade unions want to see teleworking brought under more centralised control through the 1977 Act and collective agreements, on the grounds that flexibility should not come at the expense of the welfare of employees. Such increased centralisation of control, according to NHO, is an impediment to flexibility. The social aspects of teleworking are also emphasised. One of the trade unions' concerns is that the distinction between working hours and leisure time becomes blurred. In particular, the less tangible effects of teleworking are seen as important, because people may be forced into working longer hours. Another issue the trade unions are concerned about is the possible isolation of employees from the enterprise and their colleagues, with the result that they lose out on social interaction and information exchange. (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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