Rise of telework poses opportunities and challenges, for women especially

Rise of telework poses opportunities and challenges, for women especially

Couple teleworking at home (October 2020).

(Sandrine Mulas/Hans Lucas via AFP)

Most experts are clear – telework and the various hybrid forms that combine face-to-face and remote working are here to stay. During the pandemic, working from home became a necessity, and this emergency situation has led to an unprecedented increase in the number of people working from home. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), at least 23 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean alone have switched to telework, while some 560 million have done so worldwide. This accelerated expansion has created a scenario as full of opportunities as it is of challenges.

In the European Union, telework already concerns 18 per cent of workers, and 20 per cent if we look at the eurozone. Finland, Luxembourg and Ireland lead the way with the highest percentages. Germany, for its part, has made it compulsory for workplaces to offer the possibility of working from home if there are no operational reasons not to do so.

This has a very positive side, says Carolina Vidal López, confederal secretary for Women, Equality and Working Conditions of the Spanish trade union Comisiones Obreras (CCOO). “It is a form of work organisation that can be beneficial for both companies and workers.” In Spain, where 1.7 million people telework, the average rate of telework among employees is more than eight out of ten, according to the National Institute of Statistics.

Many workers prefer to work from home, but the risk is that this transition will happen in a haphazard way that does not put workers’ rights – and women workers’ rights in particular – at the centre.

A technical report jointly produced by the ILO and the World Health Organization (WHO) confirms that remote working presents both benefits and risks for workers’ health. On the one hand, working from home helps to balance work and personal life, allows for more flexible working hours, facilitates physical activity, reduces road traffic and commuting time; but on the other hand, it can also lead to longer working hours and to employees taking on operational costs that should be borne by companies – from connectivity and energy to other expenses.

“Teleworking yes, but it requires conditions and rights. We need to strengthen collective bargaining because working from home does not have the same implications in areas such as occupational health or labour inspections, as it complicates the possibility of carrying out inspections to check the conditions under which the worker works. Moreover, telecommuting is not possible in some sectors,” says Vidal López.

The accelerated expansion of this form of work in times of pandemic has posed a challenge for trade unions.

“Telework expanded at a time in the pandemic when we couldn’t travel, and we were asked to set up a space in our homes, so that the economy wouldn’t grind to a halt. Then we began to see the rapid expansion of virtual tools that until recently we perceived as almost futuristic. The specific focus was on keeping the economy going, but there are things that were not analysed at the time,” says Jordania Ureña, social policy secretary of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA).

Ureña lists some of the risks of teleworking. “In many cases, workers had to take on additional costs. Companies did not pay [for] the cost of getting internet; nor did they provide the suitable items that a worker should have such as a good office chair,” she explains. “Sometimes, it was even argued that the worker was not spending money on transport, and so they wanted to cut the budget.” This led to the need for regulation, which in Latin America was championed by countries such as Argentina, Chile and Mexico.

Progress or regression for women?

Another risk that soon emerged is the increasingly blurred separation between work and leisure time. Working at home, workers often lose control of time, and this has gender-differentiated consequences. “In the case of women, this highlights the gaps, the inequalities. Because on the one hand the working day is extended, but on the other it is multiplied because of the social role assigned to women as carers. And if we are in a pandemic, this means that there is a high possibility of having sick people at home. And if the kids are not in school, it is the woman who mostly deals with this and does everything that a household entails, while at the same time you try to work,” Ureña explains.

Teleworking – or, more accurately, remote working, as the trade unionist reminds us – “is positive insofar as any form of work organisation that is adapted to the needs of production and the needs of the worker is positive.” However, the CCOO confederal secretary stresses: “It is not a work-life balance measure; it is a work organisation measure.”

Vidal López believes that the widespread, accelerated and disorderly expansion of remote working caused by the pandemic emergency entails “two risks that can be serious for women – on the one hand, sending us back home; on the other, eradicating the possibility of true co-responsibility” for child-rearing and care work.

“It is not enough to telework; we have to reconcile work and family life,” she concludes.

In the case of Spain, recent data revealed by CCOO shows that more women than men are switching to teleworking – 883,000 women compared to 799,000 men – despite the fact that men make up 52 per cent of the workforce. For Vidal López, this is explained by the fact that “most of those trying to reconcile work and family life are women, as evidenced by the statistics on reduced working hours.”

However, while the general trend is towards an increase in teleworking worldwide, this trend is slowing down in some countries due to cultural factors. This is the case in Spain, where it accounted for around 10 per cent of the salaried population during the third quarter of 2021, according to a recent CCOO report. “Remote working is more developed in other European countries because in Spain, presenteeism is a form of control. There is no trust in the responsibility of the workforce,” explains the trade unionist.

In countries where internet connectivity is poor, as is the case on the African continent, an additional problem is that women on average have poorer connectivity than men, which can lead to increased gender inequality.

In many Latin American countries, the pandemic made visible not only the difficulties of reconciling work and family life, but also the material deprivation that amplified social inequalities. “In a household there can be one computer, and four or five people who need it. This is one of the causes of the increase in school dropouts during the pandemic,” says Ureña. Young people have also had to contend with a future of enormous uncertainty.

At the same time, in many cases, companies wanted us to remain as productive as under normal circumstances in the midst of a pandemic that had a profound and direct impact on our daily lives, our emotional ties and our mental health.

In short, although teleworking is seen as “a very tempting way out” and a desirable solution by many employees, “the burden on workers increases and generates many physical and emotional consequences, as well as economic ones,” says the TUCA secretary.

Like any complex social phenomenon, the rise of telework is an ambivalent issue, and one that creates both light and shade. Research by Kalina Arabadjieva and Paula Franklin of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) for instance suggests that the changes imposed by telework require a legislative framework that protects workers’ ability to separate working time from their private lives. In this sense, the “right to disconnect” is a fundamental issue, but not the only one. Legal protection of telework could lead to a questioning of existing but outdated gender roles whereby men occupy the public space and women the private space, and thus also to a new look at unpaid domestic work.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Sara Hammerton