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Teleworking: How the Trade Unions are responding

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Flexible Working, 1999

Roger Lyons, general secretary of the white-collar trade union MSF (Manufacturing, Science, Finance), was one of the keynote speakers at last November's telework conference Telework 98, a sign perhaps of the renewed influence which the union movement hopes to assert as the government moves to implement its Fairness at Work employment white paper.

MSF has been one of the leading trade unions in Britain in terms of developing a policy on teleworking and flexible working. Its telework guidelines can be taken as a convenient summary of what is now a fairly general approach by trade unions to home-based telework.

In general, unions point out that they are not hostile to the idea of new forms of working per se but add that changes to traditional working practices need to be implemented by negotiation and agreement rather than by management dictat. In terms of home teleworking, unions emphasise the importance of ensuring that workers do not lose their employment rights as employees, that any move to telework is voluntary and that there is as far as possible a guaranteed right to return to the workplace if the new arrangements do not work out. Unions also tend to prefer what has been called 'alternating' home working (that is, a working week which includes both days in the workplace and days spent working from home).

Roger Lyons' message to the Telework 98 delegates followed very much this approach. He criticised employers who attempted to introduce new ways of working whilst still being wedded to old-style management methods, and he also argued against what he described as cost-cutting abuses of the employer/employee relationship which masqueraded as 'flexible working'. However, he also accepted that the flexibility which teleworking offered could provide benefits to both sides of the employment relationship. "We are trying to ensure that there is an element of mutuality in the introduction of flexible working," he said.

As Roger Lyons pointed out, MSF is not itself adverse to the idea of telework for its own staff. Bill Walsh, one of MSF's officials most directly concerned with its telework guidelines, himself works from an office in his home on the south coast.

Nevertheless, most of Roger Lyons' comments to Telework 98 were concerned much less with the traditional model of home-based teleworking and much more on the employment implications of the massive growth in call centre working. Here, too, Lyons was probably reflecting a more general change of emphasis among British unions.

The reality is that, after a flurry of interest by unions in home-teleworking a few years ago at a time when some observers were predicting a massive switch to this way of work, most unions have found that in practice there has been little call on them to negotiate in this area. By contrast, the issues raised by the development of call centres (including the pressure to change shift patterns and ways of working) have been abundantly obvious.

The banking union BIFU (Banking, Insurance & Finance Union) provides a good example of this. BIFU negotiated a much-publicised collective agreement on home teleworking with the Co-Operative Bank in 1996, at a time when the bank was piloting a small-scale telework programme for staff engaged in telephone work in its Personal Collections department. The agreement (reproduced in full in Flexible Working, vol2, iii, March 1997) included sections on hours of working, health and safety, team structure and meetings, training, insurance and withdrawal from teleworking. Among other things, it established an annual allowance of 300 for full-time staff to cover extra home heating, lighting and household expenses.

BIFU's Co-Operative Bank agreement is interesting, in that it is one of only a relative handful of formal home-telework agreements signed between British employers and unions. This is in contrast to the situation in mainland European countries (especially Germany, Austria, Italy and Sweden) where telework collective agreements are becoming a relatively familiar feature of industrial relations. (Examples of these agreements are available, for example, in the Implementing Telework CD-ROM recently published by the EU-funded MIRTI project and at the web site www.telework-mirti.org).

However the BIFU/Co-Op agreement, despite the efforts both sides expended in negotiating it, in practice is irrelevant to the vast majority of the workforce. At the moment BIFU says that only about seven employees are covered by it, and the bank has no major plans to expand the telework programme. Compare this with the much less-publicised, but far more important, agreement which the union came to in 1996 when the Co-Op Bank opened its second customer call centre, in an unusual pyramid-shaped building at Stockport. This linked conditions in Stockport to those applying at the bank's main call centre in Skelmersdale. It included a compensatory anti-social hours payment for staff working outside the core 8am-6pm hours, and a commitment to limit working obligations for public holidays to four per year (paid at double time).

According to BIFU's research officer Jo Seery, it is a similar picture elsewhere. She points out, for example, that whilst a recent Bank of Scotland home-telework pilot involved only three staff the bank's four call centres (in Dunfermline, Motherwell, Dundee and Dingwall) together employ approaching 600 employees. "There is little growth in teleworking from home compared with developments in terms of call centre sites," she says. "The greater flexibility demanded of call centre workers and the erosion of shift premia are BIFU's biggest concerns."

Up to now (and with some exceptions) trade unions have found it challenging to organise within call centres. This is due to a number of factors, including the high staff turnover typical of many establishments, the lack of a trade union tradition in new-build call centres, the use of agency staff, the often high numbers of part-time and young workers employed, and the familiar call centre emphasis on informal management techniques and team working.

A recent report produced by the Geneva-based Communications International (the international trade union body for the telecoms sector) put it like this:

"The high degree of monitoring and the oppressive atmosphere it breeds facilitate anti-union strategies. Moreover, call centre workforces are typically marked by extreme variety in the status of the individual workers and in their pay and benefits. The resultant fragmentation of call centre workforces present union organisers with a challenge, as does the high labour turnover.

"In seeking to unionise call centre workers, unions are having to turn these challenges into a positive message by launching well-organised campaigns that emphasise issues that are of major concern to call centre workers: job security, fair disciplinary procedures, a better working environment, a reasonable pace of work. Unions have been able to chalk up some organising and bargaining successes. For their part, more employers should realise that their long-term success depends on the skills and professional attitude of their staff, things that are easier to achieve with a more stable, unionised workforce."

The CI goes on to mention the example of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) in Britain, which it claims has successfully raised issues of job security and disciplinary procedure improvements in negotiations with BT.

The British union which has perhaps done most to develop its policy on call centre working is, however, the public sector union Unison. Unison's recently produced fifty-page booklet "On Line Advice: a negotiator's guide to good employment practice in call centres", although focused particularly on call centres run by the ex-public utilities (such as the gas and electricity companies), is the first attempt at a comprehensive guide.

Unison's booklet includes discussion of issues in the following areas:

  • Pay in call centres (hours of work/flexibility; new pay practices; equal pay; personal contracts)
  • Training and development (induction training; ongoing training; development training; training and equal opportunities)
  • Health and safety (risk assessments; VDU working; voice loss; hearing impairment; stress; harassment & bullying; breaks; health & safety reps)
  • Fairness and equality of opportunity (recruitment & promotion; conditions of service; childcare; flexibility; part-time staff)
  • Organising call centre employees (trade union recognition and organising)

    Unison includes a checklist for negotiators on call centre recognition:

  • Ensure the maintenance of proper trade union recognition and collective bargaining agreements in call centres where they exist
  • Where such agreements do not exist, to undertake negotiations to conclude such an agreement
  • Ensure that the facilities agreements include adequate paid time off for trade union representatives to talk to members and represent them when required

Elsewhere in Unison's areas of interest, call centres are just beginning to become a feature of local government working. Call centres are being planned or piloted in a small number of pioneering local authorities, including Brent, Knowsley and Leeds.

Taking telework more generally, Unison still does not have a national statement or policy document on the issues. Unison's Christine Durrance, who has responsibility for researching telework, says that the union has well- advanced plans to produce a checklist and negotiating guide early this year (1999) which will take a comprehensive look at home-teleworking.

Unison certainly has a growing bank of local authority home-telework pilot programmes to draw on for this work, including a number of locally negotiated agreements. In fact, it is at the local, rather than the national, level that Unison negotiates on proposals for flexible working in local government. Currently Kent County Council, for example, is renegotiating a telework agreement which it signed about two years ago with Unison, in the light of the authority's planned 'Kent Workstyle' flexible working programme. Kent is following in the steps of Surrey, which is currently preparing its own major 'Workstyle' programme, under which over 3,000 staff will be encouraged to consider home-telework, telecentre working, hotdesking and mobile working. Other local authorities with some form of flexible working or teleworking agreements include Wiltshire and Stoke City Council.

Both BIFU and Unison have drawn up their own telework guidelines, which follow closely the guidelines produced by MSF. All three are included in the TUC booklet New Information & Communications Technologies at Work, published in January 1998. The TUC booklet also includes a case study of the early telework agreement between BT and the Society of Telecom Executives, negotiated in 1992. The TUC guide (which also looks at offshore working, telecottages and mobile teleworking) is probably the best introduction to the issues associated with telework, as seen from a trade union perspective.

MSF Teleworking Guidelines

- Teleworkers should be employees of an enterprise and not deemed self- employed

- To avoid isolation, contracts of employment should require home workers to periodically attend the office

- There should be a separate room available at home for teleworking, a separate telephone and payment for additional costs such as heating and lighting

- There should be regular meetings between teleworkers and the provision of electronic mail and telephone links with other teleworkers, all to be provided at the employer's expense

- There should be regular weekly liaison discussions between a teleworker and his or her supervisor / manager

- Teleworkers should enjoy the same rates of pay and employment benefits as office based workers including child care provision and family leave. There should be a defined number of working hours. They should be included in career development and appraisal schemes including training opportunities

- All computer equipment should be provided, paid for and serviced by the employer who will be responsible for installation, maintenance, insurance and compliance with health and safety requirements. The employer should also accept legal responsibility for any accident or injury

- Teleworkers should have access to trade union representation and be able to attend meetings within working hours. Health and safety advisors and trade union representatives should be able to visit teleworkers

- Teleworking should be voluntary with a right to return to working from the office



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