Being in favour and against a shift to working from home is not a strictly oppositional binary but should rest on a coherent theory of emancipatory politics. A politics which takes into account different costs and benefits of telework faced by workers per sector, strata and workers' demands, argues Giorgos Charalambous.
Two years into the pandemic, mainstream social democrats, progressives and even some Marxists and radicals have suggested that working from home should constitute a concrete demand for workers and employees. Arguments in favour include that this would be an environmentally friendly practice, it would grant people more workday flexibility, entail less time spent commuting to and from work, mean greater inclusivity for disabled people and allow within cities the quality of life currently only sustainable outside of them. At the same time, it would also mean reducing traffic levels and pushing real estate prices down in metropolitan areas, making them more affordable for more people. During the pandemic, the pro-side has also claimed remote work as a universal fundamental right under circumstances that connect it directly to health.
The arguments employed to arrive at this position do not rest on a coherent theory of emancipatory politics – an integrated liberal, Marxist or social democratic position on the matter is yet to arise – rather they are scattered across political space and varied according to their communicator’s ideological background. Most importantly, they are all mostly predictive, not retrospective, as the debates on working from home or working from anywhere are still fresh and a lot of research is pending before establishing solid causal claims.
There are also voices on the left that reject outright the dystopian undertones of a remote work economy and emphasise its drivers to alienation, the erosion of leisure time and disordered and unhealthy lifestyles. Between the black and white of these pre-existing attitudes, how should the left go about designing a coherent strategy on the question of working from home?
If we ascribe even minimal weight to the capital-labour contradiction in our sociological imagination, then a key matter is its dynamics in a scenario of an economy largely based on remote work. A systemic imbalance of power endogenous to capitalism would hardly change with remote work settled as an issue, since exploitation would not end, but shift into and unto altered processes of capitalist value extraction from labour.
As long as capitalists affirm, usually via their own research means, that labour productivity from home or other profit indicators such as sales, does not decrease, remote working can be in their favour. When they are not convinced about productivity and sales, their approach to remote work is much more suspicious. Because top names in the business sector have spoken in favour of it, some authors project a reality that working from home has met with an overall positive to enthusiastic response from the top bosses of the global economy, and is thus something that satisfies capitalist interests.
This is a negative framing, which purports to capture the enemy side, though without dealing with the dialectics of labour relations, and not merely suggesting the almost tautological notion that capitalists will not concede easily against their interests, one cannot offer a strategic position. Besides, capitalist enthusiasm in the process of deciding in favour or against remote work needs to be qualified. There are unknown factors, judgment errors and unintended consequences, which curb any cold-hearted rationalism based on gains or losses in productivity; where, again, research is not far ahead or unequivocal in suggesting marginal gains uniformly across all businesses.
There is also clearly a huge risk in terms of mobilisation capacity. Among atomised workers behind surveillance-friendly screens, socialisation will erode, entailing a negative effect on workers’ capacity to communicate and mobilise, and even before that their proclivity for establishing a class-conscious political attitude. Given popular and professional socialisation is atomised, the same will be true for grievances.
If the workers’ collective experience leads to the realisation that each shares interests and ideas with others, then atomising workers can only move them away from a communitarian spirit. Compounding this problem is also blurring the line between work, rest and leisure, with subsequent health and community effects potentially affecting the psychosocial foundations of modern society.
Yet, although mobile work regimes damage the collective spirit of trade unionism and industrial or workplace action, they do not subvert it, in the sense that collective struggles cannot be enabled, or class-consciousness shaped, under any circumstances. As revealed recently, for example, from the successful mobilisations of delivery workers in Greece, the gig economy and remote work are not necessarily insurmountable impediments to syndicalist contention.
The latter depends largely on the opportunities and constraints in given gig economies. While delivery workers in Greece won permanent contracts, in other European countries such as Cyprus this is currently very difficult to achieve because most delivery workers are migrants with a temporary stay status and no union backing. In the UK, in the meantime, it took several court battles won by the GMB union before Uber recognised the union for the first time and introduced pay equal to or above the minimum wage, holiday pay and a pension plan for employees.
Like political opportunity structures across countries condition progress, we need sectoral analyses to distinguish between costs and benefits faced by workers per sector or sector type. Exploitation has a sectoral dimension; it arises from specific arrangements that do not change what it is but do translate into distinct opportunities and constraints for fighting back on given issues.
There are those sectors in which the technological means available are not sufficient, or could never be so, given the nature of labour required or the laws of nature. Consider heavy industry and agriculture on the one hand opposite the service sector. Consider, within the service industry, retail, tourism and hairdressing on the one hand and financial services on the other hand. Consider, within secondary industry, automated sectors and non-automated ones, such as in the market for embroideries, or certain food products. Consider the same industry between the Global North and the Global South.
In other words, there are differential feasibilities for working from home between occupational strata. The middle and working classes are structurally fragmented, among other things because they are distinctively positioned towards the potentiality of working from home. Industry-based and sectoral divides between home workers and non-home workers are bigger or smaller depending on the profession. In some cases, unions are stronger than in others, in other cases remote work is a non-issue or a new issue emerging with the Covid-19 pandemic, or a long-standing issue. This would suggest a strategy that acknowledges the variation in the gravity, impact and nature of working from home across the local and global economy.
In somewhat aggregate terms, the debate on working from home is very much one concerning above all white-collar workers and excludes many sectors that are of vital importance in the real economy, such as care, energy production, construction and logistics. Even during the pandemic, many fewer working class employees have worked from home compared to middle-class and other jobs. In addition, considering that in the past two decades, Eastern Asia has increasingly become the stronghold of global industrial capacity and activity, the remote work debate itself appears as a Western-centric discussion.
In many industries, not only in the Global South, working from home barely scratches the surface of worker rights, since it is either low on the worker’s own agenda, or, at best, conjoined with wider issues of labour flexibility, hiring and firing practices, precarity, combined and unequal development, welfare systems and more. Consider an already established labour demand in the gig economy – the right to access data about individual metrics, such as pay and working conditions, and compare it with colleagues, using lawsuits, apps and data trusts. Another claim in the gig economy (the one recently won by delivery workers in Greece) is for employee status as opposed to self-employed status and consequently rights of representation and collective bargaining, entitlements to the national living wage, a different tax status and holiday pay.
Precisely because working from home is nested within wider labour disputes and it is at these cross-roads that grievances are shaped, resisting a generalised drive towards working from home in a way that downgrades further the structural position of workers across sectors and industries and deprograms militant labour is as necessary as building a front on remote work rights. There is, after all a biting reality to the discussion as well, the here-and-now aspect.
First, there are many workers clearly demanding more flexibility in their schedules. Many people would benefit from geographic flexibility, staying in their preferred location, commuting less, spending less on transportation, arranging family affairs more freely. This must not be dismissed as a ‘false consciousness’ – a case of workers going against their own interests. No strategist can legitimate popular needs except the mass of people that lives them. Hence, instead of deductively deriving what is good for workers, the left must defend working from home where the workers demand it, at the same time weaving out the denominations of oppression and opportunity in the actual circumstances of distinct social and occupational strata, so as to understand what drives workers’ own wishes.
Second, an increasing number of people have been working from home during the pandemic, a critical mass of workers and employees who, in their professional time, operate in almost totally unregulated conditions. On most occasions, they are also burdened with the responsibility to provide and sustain the supplies and infrastructure of their workplace. Remote work is heavily under-regulated and the experience of undertaking work tasks from home during the pandemic has revealed this in a very raw fashion. According to the ILO, only ten of its Members States have so far ratified Convention No. 177 (in existence since 1996), which provides a regulatory framework, even if only on the basis of equality between home workers and others, the most capital-friendly form of pressing for worker rights.
For radicals, the most effective regulatory response to remote work would have to follow carefully fleshing out of the implications and the ways that exploitation of labour by capital can manifest in this new arrangement; and how worker power can temper it. A fundamental question, therefore, concerns the modalities through which the unresolved exploitation inherent in capitalist employment will transfer from the office to the home, taking on the same or a differentiated form.
Already, a political front is open in labour-capital relations, and the way forward is to energetically advocate a number of relevant goals: including and consulting trade unions in any relevant legislation about home and remote work; extending legal protection for remote workers; eliminating capital-friendly loopholes in contractual relations between employees and employers; advocating the ‘right to disconnect’; generalising written contracts and demanding collective agreements; providing access to social security; winning rights in terms of work flexibility within and beyond remote work; restricting the features companies specialising in teleconferencing can choose to incorporate into their products. The list is already long enough to show how part of the reason as to why business bosses make a profit out of home-working employees is precisely the absence of regulation.
Finally, a paradigm of shifting production towards home and remote work can be in line with a degrowth strategy, insofar as more production from home is viewed in parallel with more leisure overall and generates more environmentally friendly economic activity in comparison with the neoliberal context. Again, however, contributing to environmentalism through working remotely is not a story of its own, it cannot but be embedded in more integrative ecological schemes that take the whole spectrum of socioeconomics very seriously. As with deciding the place of work from home in the agenda of labour demands and action, advocating for an ecological economy through working from home needs to factor in the existing diversities in the world of labour.
Being in favour and against a shift to working from home is not a strictly oppositional binary but rather a dialectical one, hence an either yes-or-no approach by radicals to remote work will not do. There needs to be a focus on remote work in the relevant industries, sectors and markets, so that workers who benefit from it, who resist it, who want a half-half arrangement per week, who face side-effects, or who lose their job because of it, can articulate and defend their claims accordingly. There also needs to be an environmentalisation of work; that is, to assert the ecological potential more specifically where it exists and can be harnessed within the terrain of labour relations, and obviously assess its limits and challenges opposite established, emerging and alternative frameworks of social development.