Controversy surrounds eligibility of foreigners to stand as worker representatives

On a request from Parliament, the Austrian Government in January 1998 drafted legislation to remove nationality as an eligibility criterion in Chamber of Labour elections. Official comments, however, indicate institutional opposition to the measure. A similar change was requested for works council elections.

On 11 June 1997 Parliament instructed the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs (Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Gesundheit und Soziales, BMAGS) to devise, by the end of the year, amendments to the Works Constitution Act (Arbeitsverfassungsgesetz, ArbVG) that would remove citizenship as a criterion for eligibility in works council elections. A similar amendment was demanded for the Chamber of Labour Act (Arbeiterkammergesetz, AKG) (AT9706121N). One week late, on 8 January 1998, the Ministry circulated draft amendments to the AKG for review by the social partners, other ministries, and provincial governments. In the covering letter, the Ministry asked for comments not only on the Chamber of Labour Act but also on similar proposed changes to the ArbVG. The review period ended on 9 February 1998 but some organisations were still working on their response by the end of the month, one of them being the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB).

The draft clause on eligibility prescribes for Chamber membership a minimum age of 19 and at least two years' employment in a relevant position over the previous five years. These requirements are the same regardless of nationality. The Ministry packaged them together with 48 other amendments that originated from within the Chambers themselves - primarily concerned with measures to raise electoral participation, which had fallen to 30% in 1994. The next elections are due in 1999.

Of 17 statements on the draft changes received by the end of February, 10 make no reference to the eligibility clause in the AKG and 12 none to that in the ArbVG. Interestingly, the Federal Chamber of Labour (Bundesarbeitskammer, BAK) makes no mention of either, but provides detailed comments on virtually all other suggested amendments. Of seven organisations commenting on the eligibility clause in the AKG, only three were in favour of the proposed changes, but one of them felt the two out of five years rule should also be introduced for eligibility to vote. The four negative statements were cast in terms of the reform being too far reaching, some of them fearing a knock-on effect on other Chambers (commerce, agriculture, farm workers). It was felt that five out of eight years would be a more adequate employment requirement (for non-Austrian nationals) than the proposed rule.

Of the five comments received on the projected amendment to the ArbVG: only one was in favour; one cautioned against a hasty change; one urged an employment requirement similar to the AKG; whilst the two others, including that of the Austrian Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) were expressed outright opposition. It is expected that the amendment will be included when other changes are drafted in connection with removing differences between wage earners and salary earners (AT9801160N).

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