On 28 June 2022, the European social partners signed a joint 2022-2024 Work Programme that includes negotiations on legally binding measures to regulate telework and institute the right to disconnect.
Signed in the presence of European Commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis, the Work Programme consist of a broad range of cooperation areas: green transition, youth employment, work-related privacy and surveillance, improving skill matching in Europe, capacity building, and telework and right to disconnect. The ceremony took place at the Joint Social Partners Conference ‘Strengthening Europe through Social Dialogue - European Social Dialogue Work Programme 2022-2024’.
Social partners agreed to negotiate an update of the 2002 Autonomous Agreement on Telework, a set of non-binding recommendations that have long been considered outdated. The new agreement would be implemented in the form of a European directive that introduces the right to disconnect, in line with previous recommendations of the European Parliament made in early 2021. This is a key signal that the European social partners are committed to being key actors in shaping the future labour market functioning, and the first time such an agreement would be implemented as a Directive since 2010.
In their negotiations with business representatives, trade unions want to ensure that work does not infringe on workers’ free time through the institution of the right to disconnect. The need for legally binding measures is reflected in the fact that, even if they are not officially obliged to respond to their emails during their free time, workers might feel pressured to do so anyway. ‘For some workplaces, that can sometimes mean that you cannot even be contacted’, ETUC’s deputy general secretary Ester Lynch told EURACTIV – arguing that this might be the only way to alleviate the stress and pressure to exceed working hours. She admitted that this will be one of the ‘most difficult and most important parts of the negotiations’, with chief SME lobbyist Véronique Willems arguing that working relationships in SMEs are special and require flexibility. Other points on the agenda include the choice over whether or not to telework, the reimbursement of costs associated with telework, and invasive surveillance by the employer.
ETUC General Secretary Luca Visentini said the agreement is ‘ambitious in what it aims to achieve and deals with several of the biggest challenges facing workers and businesses today’. According to BusinessEurope Director General Markus J. Beyrer, ‘this work programme demonstrates a shared endeavour and commitment in times of rapid labour market change’. SGI Europe General Secretary Valeria Ronzitti welcome ‘negotiations that will ensure a fair and sustainable digital and green transition across the EU’. Véronique Willems was a little more cautious about her expectations, telling EURACTIV that she expected a fair result that would take into account workers’ interests but also the interests of SMEs.