When the borders blur

This text is part of the special section Business transformation

To say that workers around the world have been shaken up by COVID-19 is an understatement. Dematerialization of tasks, remote work, job losses, hellish pace, the virus has hit the ground running, transforming businesses and public services alike. In this context of turbulence, where protective equipment was often lacking in various circles, were we legally protected?

Quebec laws protecting workers’ rights have evolved a lot during the 20th century.e century, thanks to the wind of change of the Quiet Revolution, but also under the impetus of the unions. All these mechanisms must however be constantly revised in the face of the often rapid changes that shake the world of work.

“All these changes observed for several years have accelerated in the context of the pandemic,” notes Dalia Gesualdi-Fecteau, lawyer and professor in the Department of Legal Sciences at UQAM. This is not surprising, according to her, since the workplaces that inspired the legislators of old are bursting before our eyes. This forces a redefinition of protective measures, both in terms of working conditions and wages and in terms of the immediate environment of employees.

Telework is often presented as a tool for work-family balance, which is undoubtedly true… if it is well organized. Because the observation is clear: working hours are getting longer, encroaching on personal life and creating insidious pressure.

“The laws were developed in the context of specific labor relations,” emphasizes Mr.me Gesualdi-Fecteau, who also holds the Chair on the effectiveness of labor law. “There was a bilateral relationship between a single employer and an employee who worked on the premises, signed an open-ended contract and obtained social protection. For 30 years, under the pressure of globalization, companies have transformed, becoming sprawling, doing business with subcontractors, employment agencies, self-employed workers, etc. She adds.

All these upheavals mean that the link between employers and employees is no longer the same, leading to unprecedented situations for legislators.

They also pose new challenges in terms of protection, forcing a review of the definition of the word “employee” when all the statuses are sometimes intertwined under one roof. “A worker may ask himself: who is my employer? Because some do not have the same protections as union members. Or are not considered employees at all by companies that participate in the platform economy [Uber, Lyft, Foodora, notamment], and which present themselves as software companies, and not as transport companies of people or goods. Those who transport them then become independent workers, deprived of the protections of labor laws, sometimes also deprived of the history of customer assessments if they move from one company to another.

Telecommuting, a panacea?

A revelation for some, a calamity for others: teleworking entered by the front door in March 2020. All this thanks to the rapid development of information technologies. “At the height of the pandemic, 40% of workers practiced teleworking,” says the UQAM professor. Many have continued down this path, with glee, at least according to some Statistics Canada figures. Some 90% of these new workers say they are more productive at home than at the workplace.

An enthusiasm that must be qualified, says Dalia Gesualdi-Fecteau. “Teleworking is often presented as a tool for work-family balance, which is undoubtedly true… if it is well organized. Because the observation is clear: working hours are getting longer, encroaching on personal life and creating insidious pressure. If your entire team sends emails at night and you stay away, you may be at risk of taking a hit. And those who suggest cutting off server access after 7:00 p.m. are ignoring those whose work is not done, causing another form of stress. “

Is it better then to express your limits? “Making the management of our electronic devices an individual responsibility is also insidious. The employer has some responsibility. The discussion must continue, as teleworking will continue to gain momentum. “

As Bill 59 is being studied in the National Assembly on changes to the occupational health and safety system, the lawyer hopes that another discussion will continue. “Working conditions are not just wages, but their predictability, as well as material and intellectual conditions. “

When the boundaries between personal and professional life blur, new benchmarks are needed.

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