Teleworking should stay, major unions tell employers

Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin’s CEO Josef Vella says requiring everybody who has been teleworking to return to their workplace at once, is not the best way to go about it

A good chunk of the island’s workers have stayed at home and carried on with their jobs from home, while also looking after their children full-time, since schools and childcare centres remain shut.

Unable to leave their children with grandparents – many of whom are aged over 65 and classified as ‘vulnerable’ – these parents will face a problem when it comes to returning to their workplace.

The question arises of what can be done to solve the dilemma the many people in this situation are facing; some home-workers live with elderly people, whose exposure to the virus remains a very real threat, in the absence of a vaccine.

But Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin’s CEO Josef Vella says that requiring everybody who has been teleworking to return to their workplace at once, is not the best way to go about it.

“While people couldn’t continue to stay at home indefinitely, employers should be dealing with their workers on a case-by-case basis, to understand their particular circumstances.

“The worst thing we can do right now is generalise and ask everyone to stop working from home and return to their workplace. We can’t, for instance, put all parents in the same category. If we consider those who previously made use of childcare centres – do these all have to return to work? Can’t they continue using teleworking?” he asked.

“What about single parents? We should offer flexibility so that they can continue remote working.”

The same applies to workers living with vulnerable people, he said. “[Public Health Superintendent] Charmaine Gauci was very clear about vulnerable people – they still need to be protected from this virus. But how can we protect them if some employees are being threatened with disciplinary action if they don’t return to their workplace? We must exercise some sensitivity here – we can’t expose those living with vulnerable people to additional risks.”

For those workers who have no choice but to return physically to work, Vella says a risk assessment should take place to ensure their employers have adopted the necessary measures to protect staff from COVID-19.

“I have to date heard no mention of risk assessments being carried out, to identify problem areas in the safeguards against the virus and seek solutions in solving them. This worries me,” Vella says.

Vella highlighted that any relaxing of measures should be done gradually. “We must give ample time between the easing of one set of measures and another, so, if we notice something is going wrong – such as a spike in cases – we will be able to bring the situation under control.”

Even the General Workers Union’s secretary-general Josef Bugeja has underlined the need of finding arrangements to suit the needs of workers facing a new COVID-19 reality.

He was confident, however, that solutions between were being found, and that the challenges would be overcome. “Around 100,000 workers continued going to work amid the pandemic, with such people having also had to find solutions for childcare. Schools and childcare facilities were amongst the first sectors ordered to shut down. This created multiple problems. However, we discussed these issues and found solutions which were acceptable to all.”

Amongst them were agreements for authorities to provide childcare facilities to front-liners fighting the virus. Discussions continued to include more groups of workers who would have these facilities made available to them. “Employees and employers strive to find solutions, and they all go that extra mile. Collaboration to overcome obstacles is fundamental at the moment,” he says.

Shaping the new working world

Both Vella and Bugeja say that, even beyond COVID-19, the clear benefits of working from home – such as reduced traffic during rush-hour periods – show teleworking should continue and become part of a new working system.

“We strongly believe we must seize this opportunity to mould a new world of work. If anything, this crisis showed employees can not only work from home, but also do so without any need of supervision,” Bugeja underscored.

“Some years ago, teleworking and flexible working arrangements, especially in the private sector, were inconceivable. During recent times, change was gradual but slow. This crisis increased the pace of change. It showed that work can be performed remotely.”

Bugeja says society has been presented with an “opportunity to shape the new world of work”; but that this would necessitate a good legal framework. “To do this, we need to discuss what we want and legislate with a view towards offering protection. If we want more employees to work from home, we need to legislate accordingly. A workstation at home needs to be extended as a place of work to be covered by labour legislation.”

Importantly, Bugeja says legislation should also include employees’ right to disconnect once their hours are over, even if working from home.

“We believe change will occur – it depends on us how much we want it,” he added.

In a similar vein, Vella says the telework experience should remain.

“Remote working could be combined with going to work in person – with some days spent working from home, and others at the workplace. Working remotely doesn’t mean never going to the office and staying at home all day. Team building exercises will remain important to do at work. But employees could for instance, work four days at home, and one at the office, or two days at home, and three at the workplace,” he said.

“Imagine how many less cars there would be on the roads. And it will even have an impact on productivity – I think productivity increased during the COVID-19 period,” he adds.