The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

Telework

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 26 November 2020, 07:09 Last update: about 3 months ago

“I got used to teleworking. I can access the work network and data, and a lot of work is being carried out virtually. Filing is then carried out when we are in the office. In cases such as mine, work redistribution can take place to balance things out”.

These words were told to me by a friend employed in the public sector. It makes a lot of sense. Indeed, as many employers and employees are noticing, a lot of work in various sectors can be carried out at home. This has potential advantages, both direct and indirect, ranging from better work-life balance to less traffic stress and pollution.

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On paper, there seems to be broad agreement on the need to legislate in this area. Social partners such as the General Workers Union, UHM – Voice of the Workers and the Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry have spoken about its advantages.

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out last March, there was a strong governmental push to ensure that as many workers as possible work from home. Previously, such work was restricted often to parents of young children and more often than not, within the public sector.

As Covid-positive numbers dwindled in the beginning of Summer, the government changed its position, and many workers were asked to return back to their offices. Now that numbers have increased again, telework-measures related to Covid were not re-introduced, meaning that workers who require telework need to refer to legislation that was in place prior to Covid.

In some instances, some workers, such as my friend referred to above, were given the option to choose to telework for a number of hours per day or days each week. But this depends on the discretion of an organisation’s director, and not everyone is sensitive to the needs and advantages of this method.

UHM – Voice of the Workers recently declared that it proposed to Government to legislate on telework schemes on a permanent basis, as various members of the union ‘were being deprived of it without valid reason’.

Along similar lines, the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry has also called for ‘utmost care and responsibility by all, no less the country’s employers, in the interest of everyone’s health and wellbeing’. In particular it called on ‘all employers in Malta to actively consider remote working for all their employees who are able to work from home. Employees should also seriously consider this option. This is especially relevant to the public sector.’

In the meantime, Budget 2021 was announced. I for one agree that the Budget was generally positive, but it missed an opportunity to set the ball rolling for teleworking in the government’s goals. At the same time, however, Minister Carmelo Abela recently announced that a working group has been set up to articulate a legal framework which regulates telework and that legislation will shortly be introduced.

Whilst this declaration of intent is most welcome, it would make sense for the government to elaborate on this matter. For example, who is represented in the working group? Are sectoral representatives and policy experts being consulted? Are there any planned timeframes?

Let us ensure that if and when such policy reform is introduced, it does not have unintended consequences due to lack of broad deliberation with various stakeholders. For example, workers’ preferences and diverse situations should be given due importance. Whilst for many workers – from office workers, to digital nomads and various professionals - teleworking is most welcome, for others this may result in precariousness and even more stress in relation to the work-life balance if not regulated well. For example, in unequal family settings, this may result in a double shift for women. Due consideration to the perils of surveillance on workers and the right to disconnect need to be factored in too.

Hence, whilst the upgrading of teleworking legislation is most welcome, it is important to factor in the various social, economic, and technological ramifications and to cater for the diversity of family set-ups, employment characteristics and everyday situations of workers.

A broad, deliberative, multidisciplinary approach featuring various sectorial and expert stakeholders could and should be taken up in Malta’s post-Covid recovery plans. Now that there is a ministry responsible for this, one hopes that this policy culture is given the importance it deserves.

Dr Michael Briguglio is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the University of Malta

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