Employers launch debate on longer working hours

In June 2004, the new president of the Federation of Austrian Industry (IV) employers' organisation, with partial support from the Chamber of the Economy (WKÖ), demanded a relaxation of Austria’s working time regulations, in terms of both legislation and collective agreements, and raised the idea of longer working hours. This initiative has received a mixed response, with the Minister for the Economy and Labour Affairs apparently undecided and trade unions strongly opposed.

A public debate on possible longer working hours has recently been initiated by the new president of the Federation of Austrian Industry (Industriellenvereinigung, IV), Veit Sorger, who was elected in mid-June 2004. The IV is a cross-sector voluntary employers’ organisation representing manufacturing industry, and covers part of the domain of the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ), of which membership is obligatory for employers. At his inaugural press conference on 16 June, implicitly referring to the broad working time debate that has arisen in Germany (DE0306109F), the IV president called into question Austria’s working time regime, which is perceived as being rigid and too inflexible by most of the IV members. Mr Sorger stated that, in order to improve the competitiveness of Austria’s businesses, an extension of overall working hours and/or a reduction in the number of public holidays would be inevitable. He called on the government to realise its own programme for the current legislative period, which includes plans for a further flexibilisation of working hours.

This initiative has received a mixed response. The president of WKÖ, Christoph Leitl, only partially took up IV’s demands, stating that the existing legal framework on working hours would provide enough scope for the social partners to negotiate more flexible working time regulations. However, one of WKÖ’s vice-presidents demanded an extension of statutory maximum weekly working hours from the current 40 to 42. On this issue, the Minister for the Economy and Labour Affairs, Martin Bartenstein of the conservative People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP), did not seem willing to commit himself. Rather he caused some confusion by arguing that it would no longer be useful to 'set up binding rules in legislation and collective agreements on how many hours per week an employee may work'. At the same time, he stressed the significance of the social partners’ role in establishing flexible working time arrangements, though.

The Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) and most of its affiliates have harshly criticised the IV president’s initiative and the apparently unclear position of the minister responsible. They point to the fact that - according to law - the signatory parties to collective agreements may, within certain limits, agree on far more flexible working hours schemes than the basic rules as laid down by law, ie the Working Time Act (Arbeitszeitgesetz, AZG) and the Act on Rest Periods (Arbeitsruhegesetz, ARG). Furthermore, due to the principle of 'organised decentralisation' in bargaining, the law empowers the parties also at company level (in the form of works agreements between management and works council) to derogate from the generally rigid statutory basic rules. This is to allow for flexible accommodation of working time schemes to specific demands and circumstances in particular branches of industry and even at individual company level. Accordingly, under specific circumstances the social partners may agree upon a working time extension from eight hours a day (ie the 'normal working day') up to 10 or even 12 hours, and from 40 hours per week up to 50 or even 60 (TN0403104U).

As regards the Mr Sorger’s suggestion of reducing the number of annual public holidays, it should be noted that this issue does not fall within the purview of the social partners, but within the regulatory competence of the federal state. Since any change relating to traditional public holidays is very unpopular in Austria, an amendment to the holiday regulations seems unlikely to be realised in the next future.

Some experts suggest that the new IV president’s aim in launching a broad working time debate has not actually been a substantial reform of Austria’s legal framework on working time, but rather to pave the way for new 'bargaining rules' in favour of business. In the next bargaining round, this could possibly mean employers offering wage increases only in exchange for more flexible working hours schemes or even working time extensions. The latter are an issue that has been a 'taboo' in Austria’s industrial relations so far.

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