The new online reality: How to protect employees' rights during remote work

As COVID-19 continues to spread into new countries and stays entrenched in those it has already infected, an increasing number of people are working from home and/or relying on online technologies and platforms to conduct business. This trend, which many experts believe will be permanent to some degree, poses challenges related reasonable hours and other work conditions, privacy rights and other labour issues.

Thus, specific guidance is needed for to assure ethical business conduct:

Protecting employee rights

1) Employment contracts. Whilst working remotely, employees must be assured that their contracts are up to date and that that their employment status is clear.

No matter where they work, employees have a right to a contract that clearly defines their obligations, work hours (including how overtime is handled), sick and holiday pay (including how much time they can take off), and treatment of termination (including required notice and redundancy payment). These rights do not change when employees work remotely; rather, employees must more actively monitor to assure that their employers do not breach the terms of the contract. If they do, a formal grievance should be filed.

Businesses must continue to pay remote employees the same compensation they received previously.

2) Statutory rights. Statutory rights do not change just because an employee works remotely. These include the right to an employment contract and, specifically, to receive at least the national minimum wage, time off during pregnancy, paid holidays and compensation in the case of unjustified termination.

Employers must not deduct or diverge from employees’ agreed-upon pay, as stated in their contract. Without such guarantees, performance would justifiably plummet.

Employers must not deduct or diverge from employees’ agreed-upon pay, as stated in their contract. Without such guarantees, performance would justifiably plummet.

3) Right to necessary resources. Employers are obligated to arrange for employees to acquire all tools and other resources (such as laptops and webcams) necessary to complete their tasks remotely. Businesses must not terminate contracts due to a lack of such resources.
 

4) Non-discriminatory practices. Although working remotely may reduce face-to-face discrimination or inequality in the workplace, unjust practices still exist. Whilst assessing which employees are allowed to work remotely, businesses must take care to monitor for any discrimination based on gender, age, grade, etc. Likewise, decisions regarding possible redundancy or eligibility for paid leave or reduced working hours must not be made based on gender, race, disability, marital status, etc. Non-discriminatory practices also include equal pay for equal work.

To ensure they respect worker rights, businesses should track the decisions they make related to which employees are furloughed, who must take unpaid sick leave and who is offered flexible work hours.

To ensure they respect worker rights, businesses should track the decisions they make related to which employees are furloughed, who must take unpaid sick leave and who is offered flexible work hours.

5) Furloughed employees. Businesses must pay special attention to those employees who are terminated due to “redundancy” or are placed on furlough. Employee who are laid off are entitled to full redundancy pay, based on their previous income. Furloughed employees should be guaranteed equal treatment when they return, including when working remotely.
 

6) Maximum work hours. National laws limit work hours, including remote employment. For example, in the United Kingdom, an employee is not permitted to work more than 48 hours a week. During remote work, the line between work hours and personal time blur. Employees should be told the maximum number of hours per week they are expected to complete and not asked to do more. Regular breaks are essential and thus also should be allowed.

7) Legal protection and information on worker rights. This information, along with access to related services, must remain easily accessible to employees while working remotely. This includes access to the local trade union without objection from employers.
 

8) Data protection. Employees should be protected from privacy breaches and potential cyberattacks. Employees working from home are constantly exposed to risks whilst using company networks via their home electronic devices. Thus, companies should put data-protection policies in place and assure that workers are aware of both those and their legal rights if personal data are leaked or provided illegally to third parties. Businesses are advised to ensure that all technology devices provided to employees have up-to-date software, such as anti-virus programs and protected virtual private networks. 

Inequalities in digital advances 

The global shift to remote work is expected to have a determinantal effect on employees and employers in developing countries, due to digital disparities. Medium-sized businesses in countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal will not be able to adapt as fast to the shift to online work as countries such as the United Kingdom. Thus, it will take more time for businesses and employees to adapt to this new reality, and more-developed countries should provide financial aid to businesses in their less-developed counterparts, allowing them to catch up to the fast-paced technological advances in the global business arena. 

Adapting to the new, remote reality is a long-term process; businesses must support their employees to assure mutual benefit. The COVID-19 pandemic will require businesses to thoroughly revaluate their employment policies and contracts and mandate ethical practices.

If ethics are at the core, remote work can be a positive revolution in the workplace that both respects employee rights and allows businesses to prosper.

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