Project Description

Opportunity
and risk

Contribution to the debate on the possible consequences of a generalisation of telework outside the places of employment

We are currently in the middle of our honeymoon with teleworking, or almost. At the Union Syndicale Fédérale (USF), we have made a tour of the member organisations and we know that the majority of them like it.

There are several reasons for this: the feeling of having won a battle (the administrations were very reluctant before), the novelty, the convenience for certain acts of daily life that this evolution implies but also, in the present circumstances, the feeling of refuge that one’s own home gives, the fear of going out or simply not having the alternative of doing so.

It is impossible to know what exactly the future post-pandemic will be made of, but we already have some trends: the changing position of administrations, who have discovered the joys of saving and who will push towards at least partial structural telework, the fatigue of retrenchment at home and the recovery of the possibilities of life outside; nostalgia for human contacts, etc. Certainly, telework will continue, but not without damage. The most obvious: the imposition of open spaces[1] and hot desking[2] even for those who do not, or do not want to, telework and a breakdown of the already difficult right to disconnection.

If teleworking is imposed as a structural solution, the logical course of events is obvious: if I can do my work without setting foot in an office, which anyway will not exist or will no longer be my office, why should I do it from my place of work? Is this concept itself still useful? Therefore, the existence of a group claiming the right to telework elsewhere is quite reasonable: “Everything rational is real”, says Hegel.

Retorting, by pointing to statutory rights, that one can lose is useless: people who want this type of solution, want it at all costs (even if the combined effect of the loss of expatriation and own taxation can cause them to lose at certain levels more than a third of their income).

It is also useless because this discussion takes place, naively, in the context of the existing “Statut” (Staff Regulations): “I keep the same Statut and I am happy to lose some of the rights it gives me because I go to work where I want”. This is pure idealism (and not Hegelian, here). Reality is not like that. On the contrary, if à la carte teleworking is imposed, the whole Statut will shatter.

[1] A collective workspace in which the different workstations are not separated by partitions.

[2] A “flexible office” where the company is grouped together and several employees share the same office.

Photo : “Rama, the seated scribe”, Louvre Museum, 2018.

The approach that is needed is not a legal one but must be seen in terms of political economy. Our Statut is not an abstract entity that fell from the sky, but the result of a situation in which the Institutions needed high-level professionals. They had to move outside their countries for the most part and they had to be attracted by salary, career prospects and security of tenure, which, at the same time, brought about the neutrality, permanence and independence of the European civil service.

Times are changing, of course. And we have seen that, when the circumstances that made recruitment difficult subsided, the Member States, followed by the Institutions, hastened to modify some of the rights that were part of these incentives, generally without any compensation. The flippant and almost obscene way in which a Director of the Commission explained the other day how many millions they were going to save, is just one example of the Institutions’ ability to react to the lure of gain.

The question our colleagues must ask themselves is not whether they can do their job without setting foot in the office, and why should they do it from their place of employment but rather: if they work from their country (or the Seychelles Islands) why should they be paid differently and have different rights than those doing similar work to theirs in their home country? Why should they have a Privileged Status instead of being subject to the labour laws of their country?

Not all colleagues, of course, are necessarily attracted by this type of telework: those who like to be in a multicultural environment; those who are looking for a different education for their children; those who want to feel close to the centres of European construction. And then there are those whose jobs or responsibilities do not allow them to work remotely, let alone away from their headquarters. Will we maintain their rights when they are in the minority? What about the very existence of the Ecoles Européennes?

And the question that also concerns us, Union Syndicale: Why, if I work in my country, with the same pay as my peers in my country and subject to the labour laws of my country, should I join Union Syndicale rather than a strong union established in my country?

Of course, occasional teleworking away from the duty station should be encouraged in certain circumstances: medical needs, family members’ situation or, more generally, as an accompaniment to holiday periods, and perhaps also as preparation for retirement. In all these cases, clear and transparent rules, avoiding arbitrariness and by agreement in advance with staff representatives, must be put in place. They must, preferably, be common to all institutions.

As you will have understood, this text concerns officials and other agents subject to the Staff Regulations and Rules on Other Servants of the European Institutions, which are in the majority among USF affiliates. But make no mistake, the situations are all similar and bad habits spread like wildfire.

Juan-Pedro Perez-Escanilla

Member of USF Bureau 
and Secretary-General of USB.

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