Flexible schedules and covered expenses: Spain drafts bill protecting the rights of remote workers

The initiative comes after thousands of employees were forced to work from home during the three-month coronavirus lockdown

Many Spaniards have been working from home since mid-March, when a lockdown was imposed in a bid to curb the coronavirus outbreak.
Many Spaniards have been working from home since mid-March, when a lockdown was imposed in a bid to curb the coronavirus outbreak.efe
Manuel V. Gómez

Spain’s Labor Ministry has completed a draft bill that will regulate key aspects of remote work, which was widely adopted in Spain during the coronavirus lockdown.

The legislative initiative seeks to clarify issues that have cropped up after thousands of employees began working from home during confinement – such as defining work schedules, covering expenses derived from using home equipment, and preserving work-life balance.

The draft bill makes it clear that companies must pay “the totality” of the costs of working from home, including the direct and indirect ones. It also establishes the “right to a flexible schedule” that enables employees to make alterations to their working day, within reason and after negotiating their hours of availability with the company.

Bank of Spain Governor Pablo Hernández de Cos has warned that remote working could undermine productivity

The legal initiative, which EL PAÍS has seen, must now be negotiated with unions and employers, then undergo approval by the Cabinet, Congress and the Senate.

The draft bill, which contains 21 sections, unifies elements of remote working that had already been addressed by various legislative documents, such as the Workers’ Statute, the 2012 labor reform, and the data protection law. It also develops many other aspects that reflect the accumulated experience of three months of confinement.

With Spain under one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, companies rushed to adopt remote working. The government recommended working from home whenever possible to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and eased a few legal requirements to speed up the switch. But in many cases the working conditions have been less than optimal.

Throughout this time, Labor Minister Yolanda Díaz has been saying that the exceptional situation caused by the pandemic made it necessary to adopt quick decisions, but that the government’s goal was to regulate remote work.

Amid the ongoing debate over the benefits and drawbacks of working from home, Bank of Spain Governor Pablo Hernández de Cos made a statement of his own this week. Describing himself as “Jiminy Cricket” after the character in Pinocchio who acts as the voice of conscience, the governor said that if society wants remote work then it should be encouraged, but he also warned that it could undermine productivity.

These are a few of the issues addressed by the draft bill:

Voluntary. Distance working must be a voluntary choice made by the employees, and the agreement with the employer must be set down in writing. This document must list the equipment and resources that the employees will need, a mechanism to compensate them for these costs, the working schedule, the physical workplace that they will be reporting to, and monitoring tools to be used by the company.

Work schedule. Employees will be able to change their working schedule up to a certain point. The time period during which workers must be available has to be clearly defined.

Covering costs. The draft bill makes it very clear that employees have the right to full compensation for any direct or indirect costs derived from remote work. But nothing is said about how this should be done, other than mentioning the option of including bonuses in collective bargaining agreements.

Force majeure. In the event of exceptional situations such as a pandemic, companies will have to encourage remote work “as long as it is technically and reasonably possible.” This should be the first choice before filing for an ERTE furlough scheme. When workers find themselves in an exceptional situation involving family issues, they will be allowed to perform 60% of their work from home, again as long as “it is technically and reasonably possible.”

Right to disconnect. In Spain, the right to disconnect from work is guaranteed by existing regulations about personal data protection and digital rights, but the draft bill takes that specifically to the case of teleworkers, and suggests including specific measures in collective bargaining agreements. The document explains that the goal is to avoid so-called smart working, which involves working anytime, anywhere.

Equal rights. The draft bill insists on the need to ensure that remote work does not create inequalities between stay-at-home workers and employees who go to the workplace. Although this is already established in existing legislation, the new text elaborates further and says that remote workers will “not suffer detrimental consequences to their working conditions, including pay, job stability and promotion options.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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