Coronavirus: Employers urged to subsidise work from home

ACTU Secretary Sally McManus says unions will initially seek an agreement with employers in heavily unionised workplaces to implement the work-from-home charter as company policy before seeking to have it incorporated into enterprise agreements. Picture: AFP
ACTU Secretary Sally McManus says unions will initially seek an agreement with employers in heavily unionised workplaces to implement the work-from-home charter as company policy before seeking to have it incorporated into enterprise agreements. Picture: AFP

Employees working from home would be paid an upfront allowance to cover work-related ­expenses and employers would insure equipment used by ­employees working remotely, under a new ACTU policy that unions will seek to have adopted by white-collar employers.

The working-from-home charter, endorsed by the ACTU executive, also proposes a body to ensure the “ethical” use of data collected about employees working from home, the ­appointment of union delegates to represent remote workers, and the ability to have disputes over remote work arbitrated.

ACTU secretary Sally Mc­Manus said unions would ­initially seek an agreement with employers in heavily unionised workplaces to implement the charter as company policy before seeking to have it incorporated into enterprise agreements when they were renegotiated.

“This is basically a platform for the workers’ side of the negotiations,” she said, nominating the public sector, finance and general clerical, the major banks and other financial institutions among employers to be targeted.

The charter says working from home should not lead to costs shifting from employers to workers. “The cost of both one-off and recurring expenses that the employer would normally be responsible for on employer-­provided premises should still be the responsibility of the employer when workers are working from home,” it says.

“The employer will provide an adequate allowance or full cost reimbursement for all work-­related expenses including water, electricity and gas, stationery, equipment, amenities, telephone and internet expenses.”

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Ms McManus said the most efficient method would be for employees working from home to receive an upfront allowance. She said employers should fund the work-related cost of a home office, rather than the worker claiming it on their tax return.

The charter says it is the responsibility of an employer to ensure that appropriate equipment, systems, and technology to support remote working, are properly installed, are functioning and maintained and that workers have the required training to ­operate those systems.

Employers must pay for additional training required to carry out work from home and “take responsibility for insuring the equipment which is used”.

In relation to surveillance and performance-monitoring, unions say workers must have access to, and influence over, data collected on them. \The charter says equipment that reveals employees’ ­location should not be used “unless there is an intrinsic need for doing so”.

Ms McManus said employers should also support the establishment of a data governance body with union representation. “Surveillance and data privacy is a ­really big emerging issue and comes up a lot now,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of workers to work from home and Ms McManus said remote work would continue to be a major feature of the labour market, particularly in big cities where employees have seen the benefit of not commuting.

“It’s the potential for life to be better so long as we get it right,” she said.

“We could have a situation where 70 per cent of white-collar workers work from home and it leads to an epidemic of mental health issues and alienation and people hating it,” she said.

“Or it could lead to the opposite where people get to choose more where they live.”