an issue for the international community

an issue for the international community

Telework in Berlin, Germany, March 19, 2020.

Faced with the coronavirus, remote work was essential in a few days. Its advantages are obvious, but its effects can be harmful if it is not supervised. Twenty years ago, an international convention got down to it … but France has never ratified it.

Grandstand. Measures to combat the Covid-19 epidemic are now forcing millions of people to work at home. Politicians and employers encourage “telework”, “remote work” or “home work” in an attempt to remedy the disastrous economic effects of the health crisis, and to limit contact between individuals. This (re) discovery of telework has however revealed for many a technical, social and legal unthinkable. Workers have no choice but to rely on their employer and the expertise of the company’s IT and legal departments (when available) to organize remote work.

Telework seems to have imposed itself in a few days as an individual or even corporate practice, even though it is, like the rest, a collective, national or even international organization since the organization which employs us has activities in several countries. No need to be an employee of a multinational to be confronted with this question: many SMEs and universities with international partnerships quickly find themselves in the grip of existing legislation (or not …) in other countries. It is therefore no coincidence that this issue has been on the international agenda for … thirty years.

On March 16, 2020, the International Labor Organization (ILO), whose goal is to harmonize national labor law, posted a short video on “5 things to know for effective teleworking”. Among them, some basic advice: having the right tools, training in new technologies and clear expectations of the employer on the results to be achieved … In fact, the ILO knows the subject well. In 1990, several expert reports were published under the auspices of the organization, already reporting on the extent and variety of homework, its economic promise, and its social protection risks. Ecology and health were not topical at the time.

Among homeworkers, there are also teleworkers who use information and communication technologies in particular to carry out their tasks. But the challenge at the time was above all to better regulate homework, which affected millions of people in developing countries, in the food and textile sectors in particular. While they are supposed to have the same rights as employees employed at their only workplace, these workers are, in practice, much more vulnerable. We therefore sense the extreme variety of situations to which homework refers.

An ignored international convention

In 1996, after two years of negotiations shunned by employers’ organizations and many northern governments, an international convention with a recommendation on homework was adopted. Their provisions are very broad and therefore of limited application. Their aim is above all to define homework by clearly distinguishing homeworkers from the self-employed. It must be remembered, homeworkers have an employer. He has obligations towards his employees. Among them: specifying precisely the working time allocated to each task, or even reimbursing, where appropriate, the costs borne by the homeworker.

Since the start of the crisis, much has been said about the costs generated by computer equipment, which will now wear out much faster for professional use. Entered into force in 2000, this convention which one would (naively) have thought could have marked a starting point in the organization of this practice has been ratified by … 10 States (out of the 187 that make up the organization) but not France. Among the countries of the European Union, only Belgium, Bulgaria, Ireland, Finland and the Netherlands have ratified this convention, which could also be denounced from April 22, 2020… Since then, radio silence, at the exception of a non-binding European agreement in 2002 on telework.

The lost decades of international cooperation “Working anytime, anywhere” to use the title of a study carried out jointly by the ILO and Eurofound in 2017, does not mean working in any way. The advantages of teleworking are consensus internationally: increased productivity, greater flexibility and autonomy in organization, reduction of travel time. We also see the potential benefits in times of health crisis, starting with maintaining a professional activity that is not harmful to our health and that of others.

But its effects can also be harmful: blurring of the border between working time and rest time, loss of social ties, reduced ability to organize and to solicit unions in the event of abuse. These effects are more likely to occur since telework is not defined, organized, negotiated or protected. We have 30 years of international research on the issue and 100 years of organized social dialogue between governments, workers and employers internationally. Without being systematically the apostle of a multilateralism whose imperfections are known, it nevertheless fulfills three functions which one realizes the usefulness in times of crisis: anticipation, organization and development of a basic universal framework, all the more necessary in a situation of interdependence.


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