Union suggests wage bargaining for women

Before the start of the autumn bargaining round, Austria’s white-collar union has sparked a debate on narrowing the gender pay gap by suggesting additional wage bargaining rounds for female employees only. While the union’s umbrella organisation and the ministry for women’s affairs welcome the initiative, Austria’s largest employer organisation does not, arguing that issues concerning female employees should be part of the regular annual collective bargaining rounds.

Initiative welcomed by some

Just before the onset of the annual autumn bargaining round, Austria’s largest trade union, the Union of Salaried Employees, Graphical Workers and Journalists (GPA-djp), which represents mainly private-sector white-collar workers, came forward with a proposal to conduct additional wage bargaining rounds specifically for female employees, in order to narrow the gender pay gap. The union’s Chair Wolfgang Katzian suggested this should be done regularly, perhaps three times in every ten-year period.

The initiative was welcomed by the union’s umbrella organisation, the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB), by the Federal Ministry for Women and the Civil Service and by the Chamber of Labour (AK). ÖGB President Erich Foglar said any initiative targeted towards closing the income gap was welcome.

The Minister for Women and Civil Service, Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), responded to the initiative by suggesting that negotiations on the topic should be started quickly.

The move was also welcomed by two (out of three) federal opposition parties, the Green Party (GRÜNE) and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). Judith Schwentner, spokesperson for women’s affairs for the Green Party, wants the negotiating social partners to start the next bargaining round with the aim of reaching a wage increase of at least €100 a month for all female employees which would particularly benefit women in low paid jobs when combined with a regular percentage-based pay increase for all workers.

Organised business and ÖAAB hesitant

Ingrid Nikolay-Leitner, Director of the Federal Office of the Ombud for Equal Treatment in the Federal Chancellery (BKA), does not see discrimination within the collective agreements themselves, but rather in individual cases within companies.

She believes female employees are often classified differently from male employees – for example in a lower pay grade – even when they perform the same kind of tasks, or they get fewer promotions because of periods spent away from employment, such as on maternity or parental leave.

Because of this Ms Nikolay-Leitner proposes checking the application of collective agreements for discrimination within companies.

Business organisations have also dismissed the GPA-djp’s initiative. Christoph Leitl, President of Austria’s largest private-sector employer organisation, the mandatory Federal Economic Chamber (WKO), favours making allowances for issues that are specific to female employees in the annual regular collective bargaining rounds. He believes measures are needed to narrow the gender pay gap, including increasing the availability of childcare.

The Chair of the Austrian Workers’ Federation (ÖAAB), Johanna Mikl-Leitner, who is also the Federal Minister for the Interior, also opposes the idea of additional wage rounds for women. She is in favour of crediting periods of leave towards salary increments, which has been a long-standing demand from labour organisations.

The ÖAAB is an interest group for employees, which forms part of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).

Commentary

With a gender gap of 25.4%, Austria has one of the highest gender wage gaps in the EU, compared to the overall EU27 average of 17.1% in 2009 (Eurostat). With the implementation of an amendment to the Equal Treatment Act (GBG) for the private economy in March 2011, the Austrian government has recently taken the first steps to combat gender discrimination; however, the measures have been criticised as being rather ‘toothless’.

  • The legal amendment on income transparency (AT1008021I) has so far obliged only companies with more than 1,000 workers to anonymously disclose wages paid to men and women separately. Companies employing 150 people or more are to be included in this measure gradually up until 2014. Since the majority of women are employed in smaller enterprises, they are not affected by the bill, and this has raised considerable criticism.
  • Furthermore, companies are now obliged to disclose collectively agreed minimum wages and the company’s readiness to pay wages above the collectively agreed minimum wage in job advertisements. However, before 2012, no penalties will be incurred if this obligation is not met. Very few companies have so far actually disclosed wage information in their job adverts. From 2012 onwards, companies will have to pay a penalty of €360 for each breach of the law. Furthermore, it is possible to disclose an income range instead of a specific amount, which might not necessarily increase transparency and leaves room for wage negotiations in which it is known that female employees often demand comparatively lower salaries than their male counterparts.

As a consequence, there is widespread agreement on the need for additional measures, although GPA-djp’s proposal has caused controversy.

Bernadette Allinger, Working Life Research Centre (FORBA)

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