...And Now for the Electronic Sweatshop
when home workers and management can't agree on technology?
days when Carol Van Helvoort feels as though she's working in
an electronic sweatshop. Unfortunately, that sweatshop is her
works at home on a computer terminal processing orders for pizza
delivery franchise Pizza Pizza Ltd. of Toronto, and she finds
it isolating. "I end up not going out at all most days,"
Helvoort is not a typical home worker. In fact, she's a member
of the only electronic home-worker union in North America, Local
175-633 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Along
with other union members, Van Helvoort argues that she should
be able to use her terminal to communicate with co-workers.
But Pizza Pizza doesn't want the terminals used for any purpose
other than processing orders.
Can a company
dictate what an employee working at home does with its equipment
during personal time? Don't look to the labor laws for much
help, either in Canada or the U.S. "A 'yes' is not a given,"
says John Hornbeck, assistant general counsel of the National
Labor Relations Board in Washington.
predicament, ironically, arises from a strike launched by her
union in late 1992, after the UFCW learned that Pizza Pizza
had replaced most of its 150 unionized order takers with non-union,
self-employed home workers, saving itself about C$4 an hour
per employee. "It was a joke," says Gord Slater, an
order- taker since 1990. "Every day when we came to work,
there were fewer of us."
1992, the company informed the remaining workers that the room
they worked in would be closed, supposedly because there wasn't
enough work for them. The union found out about the use of the
independent home workers and went on strike.
was resolved a year later. Van Helvoort and 25 others agreed
to work from home as unionized employees for the much lower
wage of C$7 an hour, or 1% of gross sales plus 10 cents per
call, which-ever is higher in a given week. Pizza Pizza retained
the right to use independents and now employs 75 non-union home
feels she won the war but lost the peace. Aside from her unhappiness
about working at home, she thinks her situation undermines the
union. "If someone needs me immediately to discuss a problem,
I can't be reached," she says. "I want other home
workers to know there's somebody to help."
permission to communicate with other employees will be granted
is an open question. Though Van Helvoort believes that a loophole
in her contract permits it, she still wants to work out an agreement
with Pizza Pizza. The UFCW is trying to arrange a meeting with
management. "We will encourage the company to allow workers
to use the terminals to access a bulletin board or network,"
says Bill Richardson, the UFCW representative in charge of dealing
with Pizza Pizza.
will the union go to defend what it sees as a right to communicate?
Will the outcome create a precedent for the private use of corporate
equipment in the home?
(c) 1994 by InformationWeek. This electronic posting is not
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