As more and more of us work remotely, is there enough legal protection available?
Covid has divided us in so many ways and also brought us together. Fear can do strange things – it can manifest in everything from extreme anxiety to denial, pitting those who are worried to go out at all against those who refuse to believe Covid is even a thing.
In work, it can divide the good employers from those, like Boohoo, who exploit their workforce and it can divide those who can work from home from those who cannot or whose employers won’t let them.
We’ve witnessed a bit of a backlash against remote workers over the summer, which appears to have subsided for now as infection rates increase, with employers counting the cost of expensive return to work plans. This week’s target for blame is students. Anger is easy to whip up when fear is everywhere and people are worried about their jobs, their health and being able to feed their families.
The need for a good welfare safety net, clear communication and strong regulation to prevent poor practice is more needed than ever.
There has been a lot of talk in the last weeks about the disadvantages of remote working, including cybersecurity challenges, back pain caused by lack of adequate working space and isolation. Of course, office working also has many disadvantages, from sick building syndrome and the rapid spread of any infections to stress caused by long hours at work and commuting, sexual harassment, workplace bullying and so forth [although harassment and bullying can clearly still occur online, the addition of physical proximity can increase the sense of intimidation]. We are just more used to these and may have some sort of policies and practices in place to deal with them.
The FT pointed out this week that increased remote working has generated new legal questions including whether an employer is obliged to supply an ergonomically safe desk, a decent computer and fast broadband. There is very little besides guidance on employer obligations for remote workers. Employers or employees can claim tax relief of up to £6 per week for expenses including business telephone calls and the extra cost of gas and electricity for their work area, although employers are not obliged to do this and unions says for basic rate tax payers the sums involved are as low as £1.20 a week and require evidence to back up higher claims. They are calling for the Government to oblige employers to pay towards things like heating costs for remote workers this winter. Moreover, while there is health and safety guidance for remote workers, including a stipulation that employers whose employees work permanently from home should be given a workplace assessment, most of it seems to be just advice and suggestions. Then there are issues such as monitoring remote workers. What rights, if any, should they have and how intrusive can employers be? Privacy International says increased demand for surveillance software that enables managers to check on staff working remotely risks turning the home into a “digital sweatshop”.
Spain is currently considering remote working legislation and this week Germany was also reported to be doing the same. The Spanish government has, for instance, agreed with trade unions and business leaders that employers must cover all homeworking expenses, including computer equipment and furniture. The benefits would only apply to staff who stay home for at least 30% of their work schedule so it covers both permanent home workers and hybrid workers [the most favoured post-Covid form of working]. The legislation also covers monitoring of home workers, another area of concern. It says employers have the right to monitor workers’ online presence, but must respect their dignity and privacy. In addition, it talks about a right to digital disconnection and the right to flexibility, but says employers must be able to set times when a person must be available, the right to a timetable, equal treatment with office workers and no salary difference based on where they do their work.
Remote working throws up many legal and other issues, including how workers can support each other when everyone is in their separate silos. Many are complex and require proper reflection. Should we be thinking about this now and drawing on the research already done in this area or at least discussing a constructive way forward?