The coronavirus pandemic offers us a new reality of teleworking. But what does this imply? We workers always dreamed of this reality of staying at home, not having to go to the office, saving ourselves the trip, being able to take care of private issues and being able, at last, to reconcile personal and work life. Especially women...
But this implies new regulatory challenges for the State and its presence. There, where public and private issues merge, where we cannot recognize which part of our lives is work and which is private, it is where, more than ever, codes that establish what is good and what is out of rule are needed.
In this sense, Latin America is definitely not prepared for this reality. According to INTAL - Institute for the Integration of Latin America and the Caribbean-, in a new study that is soon to come out, only 24% of workers "telework". This is due to various realities, including cultural and infrastructural.
The truth is that the coronavirus pushes us to a resisted reality in the region and that needs to respond to new demands workwise. Claims that are already a pending debt but that must become a reality.
First, teleworking happens on the Internet. And if there is something we know about the network, is that EVERYTHING is registered. If a data protection agenda for workers was necessary before, this reality makes it even more relevant. What information can and cannot be taken by companies, how can they use it, and for what purposes. Inform workers what data they are collecting from them, and have their explicit consent. If a worker is being monitored, they should know that they are being monitored. Although this reality is not that of most companies, it is a scenario that has been growing globally and that will not take long to settle in the region, which coronavirus and forced remote employment will definitely push even further towards, unless it is regulated in time.
Next, there is a demand little explored by First World countries due to the high incomes they enjoy, and this is the infrastructure needed to work from home. With poor energy systems and limited connectivity by companies that in some cases constitute a monopoly, it is very difficult for a worker to connect to the web and be able to solve tasks in a timely manner. Needless to say, the technological infrastructure that most workers have is really poor: computers with backward operating systems, unofficial software licenses and cell phones with limited capacity (and surely a broken or broken screen) are common in Latin American households in general and in Argentina in particular. Having infrastructure is responsibility of the worker, and it is not even remotely considered that companies have a part in guaranteeing workers good equipment. A new regulation is needed in this matter, establishing who will be in charge of what technology, building alliances between the public and the private to be able to provide the workers with the necessary tools to telework without the entire monetary burden falling on their shoulders.
On the other hand, remote employment manages to merge private and work life to almost 100%. Messages that keep coming during the entire day, almost constantly, and to which we cannot read and not reply, because in theory we are at home but working. Mothers and fathers who need to educate their children, cook, clean, solve the supply of food without going outside, and work... All together. Everything at once.
The right to labor-disconnection is already, today, a pending debt with society. Workers who are contacted at any time and are informed, consulted, asked, on a variety of issues, and even receive calls for attention through chat mechanisms. It is a general reality: our work is constantly contacting us on our cell phones, and the abuse is such that sometimes we find out about schedule changes on our regular working shifts from one moment to the next, preventing us from planning the day and leading a normal life. There is an abuse of connectivity that results in an exploitation of the worker's free time.
Not only that, but also mails and messages are received almost at any time, there are no weekends or holidays. There are no limits. And while perhaps we could wait to answer, our brain is already connected 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to what we have to do on Monday when the week starts. In effect, the right to work disconnection has to do with the mental health of workers, who continue thinking for long hours and accumulate pending tasks to be solved in their minds.
There are already existing experiences in other countries that establish regimes for the number of times a person can be contacted and the reasons enabling that contact, in a sort of order that delimits responsibility, productivity and the limit of what is humanly possible. The reality is that if I have to pay you for each message I send you, I will think twice before sending the message about whether it is indeed necessary and pertinent, to see if I am willing to incur in the additional cost of contacting you after hours. Institutional mails can be programmed so that they do not leave the server after hours, and on Monday first hour the great amount of mails enters the inbox all at once. It is not a technical question. It is purely a human and ethical matter.
The arrival of the coronavirus makes us think of an imminent quarantine, where all of us who have to possibility lock ourselves in our homes in order not to continue spreading the virus and take care, above all, of the most vulnerable. This reality implies a new challenge, where it will be necessary, once again, for the State to put things in order and establish the limits so that this does not affect the workers’ mental health. Hyperconnectivity brings us new challenges: at what time can I be contacted? Is there respect for the fact that I cannot answer at that time since I am also taking care of my family? Will weekends be considered as non-working days?
Regulating the state in time has never been more necessary, so that a nearly-constant exploitation model is not consolidated.
Coronavirus will leave us with many shocks: remote employment as a business model is one of them. A present State, which regulates the new 4.0 labor rights agenda, would draw the limits between the private and the public, even within the confines of a home.
Sofia Scasserra is an economist, researcher and teacher at the Julio Godio World of Work Institute at the National University of Tres de Febrero (UNTREF). She works as an advisor on economic and international trade issues at the Argentine Federation of Commerce and Services Employees (FAECYS) and at the Foro del Sur Foundation.