National agreement signed for the chemicals industry
A new national collective agreement for the Italian chemicals industry was signed in June 1998. The most innovative aspects of the deal concern working hours: flexibility has been increased and an "hours bank" introduced. The Confindustria employers' confederation has been critical, insisting that the chemicals agreement should not be used as a model for other sectors.
The new national collective agreement for the chemicals industry was signed on 4 June 1998, following negotiations which began in September 1997 (IT9710313F).
The conclusion of this deal is especially significant because the chemicals industry agreement is one of the most important in Italy. Negotiations were strongly influenced by the tensions that have arisen between the Government and the social partners - the employers' organisations especially - since October 1997, when the Government pledged to introduce a law to reduce weekly working hours to 35 in 2001 (IT9803159N). This has slowed down the renewal of agreements, since the employers' organisations argued that the need to recoup the costs of the reduced working hours restricted the future scope for bargaining.
The chemicals agreement was signed after the social partners decided, at the beginning of April 1998, to resume negotiations over the renewal of sectoral collective contracts (IT9804322F).
The main points in the new agreement for the chemicals industry are as follows.
- Working hours. There are numerous innovations in this area. First a new working hours regime is introduced whereby the working week is fixed at 37 hours and 45 minutes. This, however, is an average amount, since the weekly schedule may vary between 28 and 48 hours, according to firms' requirements, although the work schedule in an individual firm must be defined by bargaining with the workplace-based "unitary trade union representative body" (Rsu). A second novelty is the change made to the overtime system. A so-called "hours bank" (banca delle ore) has been introduced, in which a worker may accumulate overtime: 50% of overtime hours are paid for while the remaining 50% can be used either to take days off or to attend training courses. Finally, the contract introduces what it calls "work-entry hours" - in economically depressed areas where the unemployment rate is above the national average, a weekly work schedule of 28-32 hours can be used for newly-hired workers, with an equivalent reduction in pay.
- Wages. The contract envisages an average monthly pay increase of ITL 95,000, in two instalments: ITL 65,000 from June 1998 onwards, and ITL 30,000 from June 1999. Also agreed is a one-off payment of ITL 210,000.
- Temporary employment. A maximum ceiling of 25% of the workforce has been set on the number of workers that can be hired on fixed-term contracts or temporary agency work.
- Training. The costs in terms of time for attendance at training courses are divided equally between the firm and the worker. As mentioned above, employees may use the hours accumulated in their "hours bank" for training purposes.
The trade unions have reacted positively to the agreement, and especially to the innovations in working hours, which had been the key issue in the bargaining platform presented by Fulc, the federation of the three confederal trade unions in the chemicals industry (Filcea-Cgil, Flerica-Cisl, and Uilcer-Uil).
However, on the employers' side, there have been sharply differing reactions by Federchimica, the association which represents the interests of the chemicals companies, and Confindustria, the confederation to which Federchimica belongs.
Giorgio Squinzi, chair of Federchimica, has said that the agreement should be viewed positively because the new working hours system and the raising of the ceiling for the maximum level of temporary employment should enhance flexibility. To date, in fact, firms have adjusted production to demand by means of only two instruments: overtime and the Wages Guarantee Fund (for short-time working and lay-offs).
Confindustria, by contrast, has been highly critical. According to Giorgio Fossa, the organisation's chair, the contract is too costly, given that the pay increases it provides are above the inflation rate. He has also criticised the new working hours regime, which he claims will increase labour costs.
The trade union confederations have expressed concern over Confindustria's reaction. Indeed, this is one of the few cases in which Confindustria has been so severely critical of a sector, and its hostility, the unions claim, threatens the bargaining autonomy of individual industries. They also fear that the issue will have consequences on the renewal of other agreements, in particular that in metalworking, for which negotiations will begin in a few months' time.
The recently signed chemicals deal has confirmed the tradition of innovative and cooperative industrial relations that characterises the industry. As stated above, the main innovations concern working hours. Content aside, the most significant aspect is the fact that bargaining has prevailed on a matter in which the government is now intervening by law.
The cleavage between Confindustria and Federchimica is an event of great significance, since Federchimica is one of the largest federations belonging to Confindustria. It confirms the existence of conflicting positions within the employers' confederation on a number of key negotiating issues like working time. It seems that Confindustria's critical stance is intended to prevent the solutions reached in the chemicals industry from spreading to other industries, metalworking in particular. (Marco Trentini, Ires Lombardia)