Commissioner Schmit’s opening remarks at the Conference on the Right to Disconnect and Telework

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you in association with the European Commission.

Dear chair, Madame la Ministre, dear participants,

First, let me express our very strong solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

It is my pleasure to participate in the opening of this joint conference of the European Parliament and the Commission on telework and the right to disconnect.

The European Parliament has put these topics high on the agenda.  Your resolution of 21 January 2021 on telework and the right to disconnect points to very important challenges in this area, and it also provides input for possible solutions.

Indeed, the organisation of work has very rapidly changed, due to technological possibilities and developments, but also under the pressure of the pandemic.

In your resolution the Parliament calls on the Commission to put forward a legislative proposal on the right to disconnect and fair telework. Following the Commission President’s commitment, we have started this process, and this conference is part of it.

The importance of the topic has also been acknowledged in the Council Conclusions on telework, adopted in June 2021 under the Portuguese Presidency.

The combined effects of digitalisation and technological change, including Artificial Intelligence, are transforming the world of work.

Largely due to the pandemic, teleworking has become common practice for many workers across many sectors. 

Remote work allowed many people to continue in their jobs safely and businesses to stay afloat during the pandemic. Without this development, the impact on our economies would have been much harsher.

Telework has the potential to increase productivity and wages, to improve flexibility, and to encourage work-life balance.

But, together with these opportunities, there are also potential drawbacks, including inadequate working conditions, excessive working hours and unpredictable work schedules.

Our goal therefore, is to support the digitalisation of the European economy while ensuring adequate working conditions, appropriate occupational health and safety – including mental health – as well as work-life balance.

They are pre-conditions for innovative and competitive companies. In a company where the employees are exhausted, where they suffer from stress or burnout, it is not very likely that this company has high productivity or can mobilise the innovative capacity of its employees.

Therefore we need a coherent legislative and policy response, both at national and European level, stretching from employment to education, from health to social protection. This is important for social convergence, and also for fair competition.

Our common endeavor is to explore how best to address these opportunities and challenges, taking into account national, industry and sectoral specificities.

The inter-institutional work on telework and the right to disconnect has already begun.

Telework and other hybrid forms of work are here to stay. Eurofound estimates that about 37% of jobs are tele-workable.

We all witnessed the shift in response to the lockdowns across Europe: In 2019, only 5% of Europeans were teleworking. In April 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the number jumped to almost 40% (37%).

However, the infrastructure and support services needed to effectively work from home were not always readily available, such as the right skills and training,  viable digital infrastructure and tools, the adequate level of health and safety at work, sufficient availability of care and health services.

Remote work and telework raise questions on the way in which existing legal frameworks can be interpreted, applied and enforced to continue to be fit for the digital age.

The issue of algorithms, that we have addressed in our proposal on platforms, also merits full attention, as algorithms are now more and more present in the world of work as an instrument to manage and to control human resources.

Telework can help to better reconcile work and family responsibilities but we need certain safeguards to avoid that the new way of working marginalises and excludes people, in particular women, who often shoulder additional care obligations.

The debates on the “right to disconnect” and on “telework” are somehow intertwined. However, the issues raised by the “right to disconnect” are not unique to telework.

The right to disconnect is rather linked to the widespread use of Information and Communication Technologies and digital tools in the workplace. Therefore, it concerns a larger number of workers.

The discussion on the right to disconnect is a complex one, cutting across many policy areas.

We need to have clear rules and safeguards in place, knowing that evidence advises against a one-size-fits-all approach.

Companies are very different and this has to be taken fully into account.

Several Member States have already put in place legislation on the right to disconnect. There is no reason why, in some countries, this right exists and in other Member States of the European Union, this right is denied. Therefore, it is important, at the European level, to establish this right.

It is also obvious that social partners have to play a central role in this debate and in the establishment of this right.

They surely should continue to engage and build on the framework agreements on Telework and Digitalisation.

They should work to find commonly agreed solutions notably through social dialogue and collective agreements.

In response to Parliament’s resolution on the right to disconnect and telework, the Commission committed to follow up with a legislative act in full respect of proportionality, subsidiarity and better law making. It is important to recall that any initiative in this field is subject to a two-phase consultation of social partners who may decide to act by means of agreements.

In the meantime, the Commission is conducting broad research on the trends, evolution and implications of telework and the right to disconnect. I thank very much Eurofound who are very much engaged in these studies and in this work. The Commission  has launched a large-scale study to support evidence-based possible legislative and policy measures.

Today’s conference is an important milestone to move forward this debate, gather evidence and contributions, and exchange good practices at EU level. 

Our common objective is to ensure that the digitalisation of the economy and the world of work goes hand in hand with adequate working conditions and social rights.

I wish you a very fruitful discussion. 

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