Positive experience with working time flexibility at Akzo Nobel

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In accordance with its 1995 collective agreement, Akzo Nobel has evaluated the effects of "working time differentiation" and more flexible working hours on employment. Since the effects appear positive, a 36-hour week is expected to be introduced by 1 July 1997.

The introduction of an average 36-hour week and more flexible working hours at Akzo Nobel (the largest chemicals group in the Netherlands) has been shown to have positive effects on employment and efficient management. These are the principal conclusions that were drawn by organisational consultants, Basis & Beleid, from an evaluation of 124 experiments carried out in the firm between 1995 and 1996. During the 1995 collective bargaining round, opinions differed greatly as to the ways in which employment could best be increased: by means of more flexible working hours and working time, or by reducing working time and redistributing work. Finally, with certain provisos, the parties agreed to introduce both an average 36-hour week (working time differentiation, WTD) and measures to increase flexibility (flexible working hours, FWH) into the collective agreement on 1 July 1997. (The term "differentiation" in this context means the provision - in this case - of a 36-hour week averaged on an annual basis, allowing weekly hours to fluctuate according to seasonal peaks and troughs.) One proviso was that the effects would first have to be evaluated on the basis of actual experience within the company. If this experience were to demonstrate convincingly that the needs of increased employment would not be served by WTD/FWH, then their introduction would not take place.

As a result of the evaluation, Industriebond FNV (the industrial workers' union affiliated to theDutch Federation of Trade Unions) now believes that the average 36-hour week will certainly be introduced throughout Akzo on 1 July this year. This would be a breakthrough in labour relations in the industrial sector: in the intervening months, bargaining with companies such as Philips and Hoogovens, two other Dutch industrial groups, to achieve WTD appeared to be impossible. According to Industriebond FNV, hardly any jobs at Akzo need to be exempted from the average 36-hour week. According to the 1995 agreement, only certain jobs could be considered for such exemption, such as those requiring skills in short supply, as defined by Akzo. Negotiations to introduce WTD/FWT and remove existing obstacles, including the right to interpret which categories of job may be granted exemption, should begin towards the end of March.

Meanwhile, the introduction of a 36-hour week in the banking sector has encountered difficulties, and exemptions have already been made on a large scale. On 26 September 1996, the Banking Tribunal issued a ruling on a dispute between the trades unions and ABN Amro (the largest bank in the Netherlands). The trade unions stated that ABN Amro had infringed the collective agreement for the banking sector by exempting 23% of its workers from the 36-hour rule. Since the parties to the collective agreement had not specified the number of exemptions to be allowed and had not defined the term "group of workers", the Tribunal decided that ABN Amro could reasonably lay down these exemptions.

Reference

"Arbeidsduurdifferentiatie & flexibele werktijden. Evaluatie van 124 experimenten bij AKZO NOBEL in Nederland" ("Working time differentiation and flexible working hours. Evaluation of 124 experiments at AKZO NOBEL in the Netherlands", Basis & Beleid (6 February 1997).

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