Flexibility must not exclude appropriate working conditions.

SW – 03/2021

This is one of the outcomes of a high-level conference held on March 9, 2021 under the Portuguese Council Presidency, which focused on the challenges, risks and opportunities of mobile work. The four sessions looked at key trends and the associated implications for professional and private life, labour law, access to social protection as well as health and safety at work. The results will be integrated in the Council's conclusions.

The world of work has changed as a result of digitisation and new forms of work have emerged. In particular, developments in mobile working have been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. According to a study by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) on "COVID-19: implications for employment and working life", almost 50 percent of the EU workforce teleworked exclusively or partially in July 2020, and 34 percent of respondents teleworked exclusively from home (available in English only).

The Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Guy Ryder, recalled that telework has existed in various forms for decades, but its growth and the so-called gig economy are new. The number of digital platforms worldwide has increased fivefold during the last ten years, i.e. not just as a result of the pandemic. It became necessary to protect the rights of all workers regardless of their employment status. Nicolas Schmit, EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, warned that decent working conditions should not be exchanged for flexibility. They should rather stand side-by-side. Adequate working conditions would have to be guaranteed regardless of organisational work models.

Right to non-availability

For the future, employees and employers seem to prefer hybrid systems in particular, where work can be done from both home and the office. The boundaries between work and private life could become increasingly blurred as a result. This could contribute to increasing the pressure of constant availability. It was important to have a social dialogue leading to specific legislation. The European Framework Agreement on Telework of 2002, was signed by the social partners, and the 2021 recommendations of European Parliament on the "right to be unavailable" had already created a basis for this.

Access to social protection

It was important to find a balanced approach to the regulation of new forms of work and to allow broad access to social protection, as well as a balance in regulating telework, taking into account the experience gained during the pandemic. This had led to insecurity and fear of workers becoming ill or losing their jobs and income. The most reliable mechanism for achieving balanced solutions is collective bargaining. Any European initiative on labour law and social security issues should be developed in dialogue with the social partners.

Health and safety at work

Teleworking and working via digital platforms make it more difficult to monitor health and safety in the workplace. Inappropriate working conditions could lead to health risks, ranging from physical health disorders such as back pain or obesity to impaired mental health due to isolation, stressful situations or anxiety. Regulating the labour market in the digital economy is of fundamental importance. Telework requires specific legislation that should apply to all countries, as borders become irrelevant if the workplace can be anywhere in the world.

Click on the respective links for more information about the conference sessions and a document with background information (both in English).