Ministry of Employment clarifies controversial Law on Working Time Reduction

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Law 21/96, which aims to reduce the working week to 40 hours, has given rise to labour disputes in certain sectors and some controversial statements. An official communication released by the Secretary of State for Employment in March attempts to shed light on the areas of concern.

Law 21/96 on working time is widely regarded as an important social step forward that covers half the entire working population. Nevertheless, it has been the focus of constant criticism by the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers-Intersindical (CGTP).

The Law requires negotiations between the Government and the social partners (the three employers' confederations and the General Workers' Union, UGT) according to the "short-term Social Concertation Agreement" signed in January 1996. The wording of the Law is not technically explicit, and there are certain doubts concerning how to interpret provisions relating to the calculation of effective working time (ie, the time to be counted as working time). These centre on, for example, the calculation of certain breaks or interruptions that occur in a number of sectors (such as textiles) and in certain types of work organisation (such as in the case of flexible and permanent shifts).

The interpretation of the legislation has turned into a controversial issue. The CGTP referred the Law to the Ombudsman (provedor da justiça) who cautioned the Government to clarify certain aspects. The Ombudsman's position is supported by CGTP and by the Communist Party. The leader of the Social-Democratic Workers' (Trabalhadores Sociais Democratas, or TSD), who is an opposition Member of Parliament, announced that he would submit a private member's bill (a legislative proposal not officially backed by the Government) to interpret the Law. It is virtually certain that the Government will oppose this bill.

On 17 March, the Secretary of State for Employment signed an official communication addressed to the Ministry of Employment's departments. This explains that in cases of shiftwork, when machinery operates nonstop, breaks are considered "effective work" whenever the worker is available during the break for work to solve any technical problem with the machinery for which he or she is responsible, but only when the problem(s) cannot be solved by another co-worker from the same shift.

The notion of "availability for work" has to be established by a collective agreement, work regulation, written individual agreement, or, when not possible in a written document, signed by all the workers of the same team or shift.

This official communication tries indirectly to consolidate the existing interpretation of the Law. However, the CGTP has already stated that the issue is far from being resolved and the TSD leader's opinion is that the official communication does not represent anything new when compared with the previous interpretations released by the Ministry. On the other hand, employers in the textiles sector (mainly in Vale do Ave region) do not agree that half-hour breaks count as effective work. In their opinion, the two half-hour losses of production per week, and the reduction of the working week to 40 hours, would make it almost "impossible" to sustain their current level of exports.

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