Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

London, United Kingdom – Kiasi Sandrine Mputu has been working from the bedroom of her London apartment since the March 2020 pandemic. Like legions of crisis-mongering remote workers around the world, she says the arrangement has its pros and cons.

“I like working remotely,” the 30-year-old told Al Jazeera. “I do not think I will ever be able to come back [to] the normal routine. ”

An assistant manager at a London-based import-export firm, Mputu’s home office is proof of how personal and professional spaces can quickly become entangled in remote work: a desk with a computer monitor provided by the company next to ‘ a drawer full of clothes it’s next to her bed.

Even though she is adapted to the flexible sleeping workspace, Mputu still struggles to feel isolated from colleagues.

“I [sometimes] spend the whole week alone, ”she said.

Mputu says her employer sometimes organizes virtual social gatherings. But she wants the British government to follow Europe’s example and do more to support the mental well – being of remote workers like itself.

But workers’ advocates want Europe to go even further – by ensuring that new laws that address remote work arrangements cover all employees, no matter where they earn their bread.

Right to disconnect

In a major victory for a better work-life balance, Portugal last month rolled out new regulations for the era of remote work, including granting workers the “right to disconnect” by banning firms from working outside working hours contact, except in emergencies.

The new rules – designed to attract more tax-paying “digital nomads” to the country – also require firms to help pay for household gas, electricity and internet bills; prohibits them from supervising their remote workforce; and require that they allow parents of young children to work from home without prior approval.

Kiasi Sandrine Mputu said she loves working remotely and can never see herself returning to a pre-pandemic, full-time office routine [Courtesy Urooba Jamal/Al Jazeera]

But Portugal has stopped giving workers the right to turn off their devices and ignore messages from their bosses outside working hours – a rule Italy introduced earlier this year.

Progress is also being made in France and Germany, where employers are required to have a valid reason to reject employee requests to work from home.

Trade unions and experts in the European Union and the United Kingdom welcome the momentum to promote the rights and well-being of remote workers, but they want the new rules to go even further.

The flexibility stigma

Experts say the explosion in remote work during the pandemic has exposed how outdated some labor laws have become.

The “right to disconnect”, for example, is a hot-button issue that precedes the pandemic, with France putting a groundbreaking law on the books in 2017. While other European countries have followed suit, the European Parliament continues to push the EU Commission. to give workers throughout the block the right to turn off their devices when they are not at work.

Heejung Chung, a researcher on overtime and work-life balance at the University of Kent and author of The Flexibility Paradox, told Al Jazeera that employers have contacted workers more frequently outside formal working hours as the boundaries between home and office become blurred. employees to work around the clock – a growing problem that the right to disconnect is designed to fix.

An exclusive focus on homework rights will create new inequalities for those at work where homework is not possible

Frances O Grady, Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress

She also said that remote workers are often burdened with the “flexibility stigma”, where after work from home is considered less productive than arrangements in the office. This negative perception, she said, could lead to employees working longer hours to compensate.

Many proponents of labor rights say the right to disconnect is just a beginning, and that companies should give workers the power to set their own work schedules to promote a healthier work-life balance.

“Many of the boundaries given by labor legislation over… [working] overtime… [became] obsolete, ”Chung said.

Data cited by the European Trade Union Institute found that 27 per cent of European remote workers were worried about their jobs while not actually doing so, and that 29 per cent felt too tired after work to perform household chores.

Not interrupting workers outside of working hours “will not prevent these workers from suffering stress when they return to work,” Ignacio Doreste, an adviser to the European Trade Union Confederation, told Al Jazeera.

While Mputu feels happy that her boss does not contact her outside of working hours, she said she would prefer to set up her own work schedule, rather than being tied to one that determines her employer.

“At the end of the day we are at home, so if I can do my job at night or in the morning, it will not really make a big difference,” she said.

All workers, not just laid off

While many labor rights activists welcome the pursuit of empowering remote workers, some worry that the relentless focus on working from home could leave a large part of the workforce behind.

“An exclusive focus on homework rights will create new inequalities for those in jobs where homework is not possible,” said Frances O Grady, secretary general of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Britain’s largest trade union.

A survey conducted by TUC in June found that people in the UK who worked higher paid jobs were much more likely to work from home during the pandemic than those in working class work.

“All workers need stronger rights to the full range of flexible work options such as flex time, predictable shifts and work shares,” O’Grady told Al Jazeera, “otherwise there will be a new class divide, with some people getting the flexibility they need. need and excluded others. ”

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