Committee issues report on future of working life
in December 1999, the government-appointed Working Life Committee delivered its report on the future challenges facing Norwegian working life. The committee's mandate was to examine the basis for a future evaluation of, and possible alterations to, the system of regulation, and to identify and analyse developments which have consequences for flexibility in working life.
On 2 December 1999, the government-appointed Working Life Committee (Arbeidslivskomiteen) delivered its report on the future challenges facing Norwegian working life. The rationale for the committee's work is the apparent need for more flexible ways of organising working life, in the face of increasing internationalisation of the economy and a shift towards a "post-industrial" society. The committee comprised representatives from all the major social partner organisations, the relevant government ministries and academic institutions. The chair of the committee was Tom Colbjoernsen, a professor at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration (Norges Handelshøyskole).
The committee's mandate
The committee's mandate was to examine the basis for a future evaluation of, and possible alterations to, the system of regulation of working life, with an emphasis on the Act relating to Worker Protection and Working Environment (AWPWE, Act No.19 of 28 February 1997). The main objective was to identify and analyse developments which have consequences for flexibility in working life, and propose relevant topics for discussion and problems to be considered within four broad areas of working life; the working environment; working time; employment protection; and workers' participation. International developments, in particular in the EU/EEA area, formed an important reference point for the committee's work. In light of the four areas of concern, the committee was also to consider the relative usefulness of different types of regulatory mechanisms in serving the dual purpose of safeguarding the flexibility and competitiveness of companies, and the wellbeing of employees.
The committee looked at different aspects of the working environment in which regulatory change may be feasible, including the applicability of the AWPWA. The argument was that the Act originated in an industrial society, but that today's post-industrial society has generated new types of occupations and employees, and modes of work, so that the extent to which the Act is able to accommodate these developments today is an issue which should be further deliberated. Another aspect identified is the distribution of responsibility for the working environment. At present most of the responsibility rests with the employer, and the committee suggests considering the extent to which more responsibility should be placed on individual employees. It is stressed that a discussion on shared responsibility for the working environment must be seen in light of new ways of organising work, such as home-based work.
The committee proposes a full-scale review of the working time chapter (Chapter X) of the AWPWA, with a view to making it more comprehensible, but also with the possibility of making alterations. The issue of working time has long been subject to much controversy in Norway ( NO9903123N ). Among the areas considered by the committee are the AWPWA's restrictions on night work, and work on Sundays and public holidays ( NO9906138N ), and the committee calls for an evaluation of the extent to which these regulations should be softened to meet new demands and requirements. The committee does not want to see the ban on night work abolished, but a majority wants to see an easing of the ban. The representatives of the employee side stressed that they did not want to see any alterations to the present provisions. Other areas of importance are the regulation of standard working hours, restrictions on overtime work ( NO9810193N ), and the introduction of alternative working time arrangements such as "time account" schemes. The committee argued that the growing importance, and size, of occupations within the service- and social care sectors, as well as the apparent growth in home-based work, may justify a revision of the provisions stipulating standard working hours and restricting overtime work. The committee wants to see deliberation on the extent to which the current weekly and four-weekly limits on overtime may be increased. The AWPWA provisions on working time allow for the social partners to agree on working time arrangements deviating from those stipulated by the Act in some areas. The committee argues that extending this practice may be a viable option.
The committee recommends a thorough evaluation of the provisions concerning employment protection in the AWPWA, with a view to clarifying them and to making them more comprehensible. The committee's report is especially concerned with the criteria for the use of temporary employment and the various problems with regard to dismissals/employment protection. The employers' side wanted to see a softening of the restrictions on temporary employment, while the employee side wanted the regulations to remain as they are today. Although the committee was internally divided over the issue of temporary work, the report nevertheless stipulates that permanent employment should still be the main rule in working life. A majority of the committee members also wanted an evaluation of the extent to which the present rules sufficiently meet the need for work experience among groups of employees facing difficulties in the labour market. The representatives from the employee side argued that it would be unethical to pit the needs of those who had dropped out of the labour market against the need for employment protection among those already in employment.
The issue of workers' participation was integrated into the above three points of discussions, and thus was not considered as an issue on its own. The basic argument of the report is that employees are gaining increasing influence on their own work situation, because of a general change in the mode of work, but also because employees today are more competent and educated.
Regulation by law or agreement
The committee was also required to consider the relationship between legal regulation and the type of regulation in which the social partners enter into (more flexible) agreements going beyond the rules stipulated in the legal framework. The present legal framework allows such agreements in areas such as working time. The committee recommends a more thorough evaluation of the type of provisions suitable for regulatory agreements between organisations, and the type of provisions more suited to agreements between individual employees and enterprises. It is further recommended to examine which issues are best regulated through agreements, and which require legal regulation.
The Working Life Committee's report has been criticised by the media for being too vague and marked by compromise, although this should not come as a surprise considering the committee's relatively vague mandate. The committee was not to recommend concrete alterations to the regulatory framework, but only to consider possible areas of tension and principal issues of importance, for future reference and deliberation. Furthermore, many of the issues considered are relatively controversial, and thus the report takes the form of a compromise between the various factions in the committee. The issues of working time and workers' protection were especially subject to significant debate during the committee's work, and thus there was no general consensus on these issues.
The Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development has not yet taken any concrete initiatives to follow up the findings of the committee, but the first step is to have the report considered by the relevant parties and institutions/organisations. The report will beyond doubt generate debate, but there is nevertheless a general consensus about the need to review the present legal framework. In the autumn of 1998, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) launched a campaign among its members to debate the future of working life (NO9809188N). At a follow-up conference on 14 December 1999, LO called for a more comprehensive and unified legal framework for the future regulation of Norwegian working life. The organisation points to significant developments in working life which demand a review of the legal framework in order to safeguard the future needs of Norwegian employees. (Haavard Lismoen, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)