European working time conference held in Helsinki

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The Finnish Ministry of Labour organised a conference on "Working time in Europe, towards a European working time policy" in October 1999. Developments in this field are being followed closely among the EU Member States. The French initiative to establish a statutory 35-hour working week was much discussed at the conference, but it seems that there is not much preparedness for a general cut in working time, even though many research studies indicate that reducing hours through reorganising work would benefit both parties and could decrease unemployment. The conference also highlighted differences on possible working time negotiations between the EU-level social partners.

The Finnish Ministry of Labour organised a conference entitled Working time in Europe, towards a European working time policy in Helsinki on 11-12 October 1999, bringing together researchers and representatives of social partners and governments. The first day was devoted to the presentation of research results concerning working time practices in different European countries, while the second was reserved mostly for contributions by social partner representatives.

The themes for discussion focused on how working time is connected with competitiveness, flexibility, reconciling family and work, and employment. All these issues were reviewed in the perspective of the demands they raise for a reorganisation of work - and what kind of advantages individuals, companies and society as a whole might gain.

Reorganisation of work as a key issue

Professor Gerhard Bosch (Institut Arbeit und Technik, Germany) and Dr Christer Sanne (Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden) examined the historical perspective of reductions in working time, which have been possible for the developed industrial countries, where increased consumption and increased leisure time still compete for priority. According to Professor Bosch, there should not be any new common working time standard in Europe - instead, flexible reorganisation of work could allow working hours to be cut and productivity to be increased in such a way that all parties could benefit. In this way, competitiveness could also be improved. In many countries, standard working times (of 37-40 hours a week) are followed in practice, but in some other countries the reality does not correspond with the standards. It seems to be a phenomenon in Europe that there is much working time which is not recorded. Professor Bosch also reported his findings that large wage differences lengthen working time, while in those countries where wage distribution is more equal, there could also be an opportunity to cut working hours. He also stated that reduction of working time is not a barrier to growth. He found it problematic at the company level that small and medium-sized enterprises do not introduce innovations in cutting working time. He referred to the French situation, whereby enterprises can obtain help from consultants in order to develop models for reducing working hours.

The French model of a statutory 35-hour working week, which will be implemented at the beginning of 2001 (FR9910197N), was presented by researchers Jean-Yves Boulin and Gilbert Cette. Overall, the French case aroused a lot of debate throughout the conference. It remains to be seen what concrete effects France's 35-hour week legislation will have for companies as regards competitiveness and employment, for example.

The majority of the speakers referred to the disintegration of the model of the eight-hour working day and 40-hour working week in the developed industrial countries. In Anglo-Saxon countries, the market-driven approach has brought a return to long working weeks, but at the same time the availability of part-time jobs has grown drastically. On the other hand, in continental Europe there is a strong tendency toward reduction of the working week. Many researchers emphasised that the increased availability of part-time work affects equality between men and women because, due to cultural reasons, the part-time jobs mostly involve women.

Working time accounts

Hartmut Seifert, head of department at Germany's Hans Böckler Stiftung, stated in his presentation that overtime and weekend working have become more general in Europe. As a solution to this kind of lengthening of working time, he proposed more extensive use of "working time accounts", whereby the overtime could be saved and used for a longer period of free time later on. The costs to the employer are not increased by using this model. In Germany, according to Mr Seifert's calculations, eliminating overtime would decrease the number of unemployed persons by 10%-15%. He suggested that discussion of working time accounts should be included as part of collective bargaining. In conclusion, Mr Seifert stated that in favourable circumstances the use of flexible working time would lead to a "win-win" situation, which would benefit both employees and employers.

However, this may be difficult to implement in reality. In response to a question on how working time accounts could be implemented in practice, Jean Lapeyre, the deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), affirmed that all workers must retain the right to be compensated for overtime. Thérèse de Liedekerke, director for social affairs at the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE), feared that practical implementation could be difficult, at any rate for white-collar workers and middle management, who might find it difficult to take a longer period of time off from their work.

EU-level social partners quite far apart

In the panel discussion, in which the European-level social partners participated, it became clear that the standpoints of UNICE, ETUC and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) on how to proceed with the working time issue diverged considerably. Ms de Liedekerke of UNICE stressed the macroeconomic perspective in justification of her view that working time could not be reduced. In her opinion, the demographic problems caused by the ageing of the European population meant that the amount of work should rather be increased, in order to be able to cope with the growing social costs. As to the European-level working time debate in general, she considered that there was no need for a European policy on this issue, and that the right solution was to handle it at decentralised level. UNICE does not want detailed negotiations on working time - it is prepared only to discuss the issue. In order to get even this far, the points in question should be identified. UNICE is also opposed to binding EU-level texts concerning training. According to Ms de Liedekerke, only recommendations and proposals can be made at the EU level. Mr Lapeyre of ETUC sees the lack of progress in the working time debate as stemming from employers' unwillingness to negotiate. "The discussions have become deadlocked in an ideological dispute in which the employers' organisations are the most dogmatic of all," declared Mr Lapeyre.

The CEEP representative, chargé de mission Pierre Bourquet, agreed with the idea of making organisations more flexible and affirmed that working time, competitiveness and employment went hand in hand. Mr Bourquet presented his conception of the working time issue as a negotiation process, also bringing together customers, users of products and services and the general public in gathering good practices from different countries.

Conclusion

To summarise the conference, the main thread running through the discussions was the idea that changes in working time must be connected with reorganisation of work. Readjustment of working time without taking steps to reorganise work may do more harm than good. Of considerable significance in this context is the goal of lengthened operating and service hours in both production and services. The result may be that working time and operating time will diverge. As to working hours, it should be possible to use different kinds of flexible systems, and they should be applied creatively at the local level through agreements between employer and employees. Such agreements must be made possible through legislation - this aspect was stressed by, among other speakers, the acting deputy director general of DGV of the European Commission, Odile Quintin.

Commentary

The diversity and lack of cohesion in the working time debate reflect different premises, needs and objectives in working life, which are expressed by the social partners in particular. Working cultures vary considerably between different European countries: what is possible and works well in one country may not be possible in another. Despite this, there are several common characteristics. Working time issues will continue to form part of the European employment debate and may even be emphasised further. It does not seem possible for every country to have such a high level of economic growth that unemployment could be handled through working time reductions alone. A steady growth in productivity would also provide resources for working time to be reduced in different ways, but according to the research reports even this would not bring an automatic solution to the unemployment problem. The discussion will continue within the EU, making possible the development of frameworks within which the working time solutions are the best possible ones for all parties. However, at this moment it seems that the EU-level social partners are rather far apart - employers are prepared for discussions only, without any binding agreements. If there are to be any concrete steps forward in this field, a more active role on the part of the Commission would be required. It is more likely, nevertheless, that solutions will be decided at the decentralised level. (Juha Hietanen, Ministry of Labour)

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