Agreement between government and unions on part-time contracts

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On 13 November 1998, the Spanish government and the CC.OO and UGT trade union confederations signed an agreement on part-time employment contracts which seeks to improve the conditions of part-time workers and to provide them with social security benefits pro rata to the number of hours worked. The main employers' organisation, CEOE, refused to sign because it claims that the form of contract on offer was too inflexible and complicated and that the contracts will lead to a less flexible labour market.

At present there are 1 million part-time workers in Spain, most of them on temporary contracts. The number has increased considerably since the 1994 reform of the labour market that regulated part-time employment, providing for contracts of fewer than 12 hours per week or 48 per month with lower social security contributions for the companies involved (ES9703203F). The 1 million figure is equal to 8% of the employed population, compared with the EU average of 17%, and far higher levels in countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France.

In Spain, part-time employment has had two characteristics that have made it unattractive for workers and threatened the principles of equal treatment and non-discrimination. The first was that employers could reorganise part-time working hours without previous notification and increase them by means of overtime distributed at the convenience of the company. This seriously affected the daily routine of the workers involved (they could choose whether or not to work overtime, but their short working hours generally forced them to accept in order to supplement their wages). The second characteristic was that most part-time contracts (those for under 12 hours per week or 48 hours per month) did not entitle the workers to social security benefits (such as benefits for unemployment, sickness, maternity and so on). Part-timers found it difficult to qualify for pensions because they required an excessive number of years to reach the minimum level of contributions. Though overtime hours counted towards sickness benefit, they did not count for pensions and unemployment benefit.

Negotiation of the new contract

On 13 November 1998, the Spanish government and the two main trade union confederations - the General Workers' Union (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) and the Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obrera s, CC.OO ) - signed an agreement on part-time employment contracts. The new regulation is intended to meet the commitments laid down in the May 1997 European framework agreement on part-time work signed by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) (EU9706131F). This agreement - which guarantees non-discrimination and equal treatment, together with labour flexibility - was implemented by EU Directive 97/81/EC in December 1997 (EU9712175N).The new Spanish agreement is also intended to develop the commitments made in the April 1997 intersectoral agreement for employment stability (ES9706211F).

Negotiations over the new form of part-time contract were held over several months in 1998 in bipartite commissions, between the government and the unions on the one hand and between the government and the employers on the other. The Ministry of Labour acted as an intermediary between the social partners and also made its own commitments in the area of social benefits.

An agreement was reached only between the unions and the government. The Spanish Confederation of Employers' Organisations (Confederación Española de Organizaciones Empresariales, CEOE) refused to sign, claiming that its proposals had not been taken into account. Nevertheless, the government made a commitment to introduce the agreement as a bill in the near future, and it is expected to receive the approval of the majority in parliament.

Main points of the agreement

The agreement establishes that part-time working hours must not exceed 77% of full-time working hours, which at the present time average 1,773 hours per year. This means that part-time work must not exceed 1,365 hours per year, or 30 hours per week. Working hours, as well as their daily, weekly and annual distribution, will feature in the part-time employment contract.

When the contract is a secure one, the number of working hours may be increased by means of complementary hours, which must be agreed expressly with the worker concerned. The maximum number of complementary hours is 15% of working hours, or 30% if the individual agreement with the worker forms part of the collective agreement, but ordinary hours plus complementary hours must never exceed 77% of full-time hours. Complementary hours will be distributed quarterly. Within each quarter, employers may organise the complementary hours as they wish, but must give the worker one week's notice; the worker may refuse to work the complementary hours provided he or she gives three months' notice. Only 30% of these hours may be transferred from one quarter to the following one. Furthermore, these complementary hours are treated as ordinary hours for the purposes of accumulating rights to social benefits. If the worker works complementary hours for two years, then 30% of the yearly average becomes consolidated as ordinary working hours; this percentage rises to 50% after two further years.

Overtime is excluded from the part-time contract, whether temporary or permanent, except in situations of force majeure (when it is essential).

In terms of social security benefits, part-time workers are entitled to retirement pensions, unemployment benefit, sick leave and other benefits, just like full-time workers. For the purposes of retirement and permanent disability pensions, the hours worked will have a corrective coefficient of 1.5. That is to say, a person who has worked for 20 years under a part-time contract will receive a retirement pension equivalent to 30 years, always with respect to proportionality and never exceeding what a full-time worker would obtained. According to the experts consulted, some of these agreements require new regulations of extraordinary complexity, which will be implemented in the next few months.

Positions of the social partners and government

After over 40 bilateral meetings, the text of the agreement was not approved by the employers' confederation, whose board of directors rejected it unanimously. The fundamental objection is that the contract is inflexible and would prevent a variable distribution of working hours, an essential aspect of part-time employment, according to the CEOE.

In particular, the employers reject the treatment of complementary hours, which they would have liked to use far more flexibly - that is to say, calculated over the course of a year and at a higher level (at least one-third of the ordinary working hours). They are reluctant to consolidate these hours as normal working hours after a period, since this reduces the flexibility of part-time work. CEOE also rejects the more rigid treatment of overtime than that found in full-time contracts. Furthermore, it claims that the mechanism that will be generated will be so complex that employers, and particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SME s), will be reluctant to use it.

Nevertheless, the employers do not wish to be insensitive to a reform that they consider to be necessary, so up to the last minute they asked for a delay in signing the agreement and for tripartite negotiations to be started from scratch. The employers' position was not changed, either by pressure from the government nor by the recommendations of Pádraig Flynn, the member of the European Commission responsible for employment and social affairs, who told José María Cuevas, the leader of CEOE, that the agreement is in line with modernising the labour market, as desired by the Commission.

The unions claim that the agreed text combines the flexibility demanded by the employers with the necessary safeguards for minimum rights, so they believe it unacceptable to consider a more open agreement in the sense demanded by the CEOE. In particular, they state that it is not acceptable for the distribution of working hours to be changed continually at the will of the employer.


Over 1998, several collective agreements had begun to regulate aspects of part-time employment in line with the agreement that has been reached. Now these terms have been generalised to cover all workers. It is evident that the agreement on part-time employment is a very important step because it allows part-time workers to enjoy social security benefits that are proportional to those of full-time workers.

However, regarding working conditions, the deal's rejection by the principal employers' organisation raises serious doubts about its effectiveness. Firstly, it is not evident that the number of permanent contracts will increase, because they become compulsory only if complementary hours are worked - the employers could choose not to apply them if they consider them to be excessively strict. On the other hand, without the collaboration of the employers there is no guarantee that working hours under part-time contracts will not be extended through overtime, due to the difficulty of controlling this practice.

The basic problem of part-time employment has not been solved by this agreement, nor could it have been. This problem lies in the voluntary nature of part-time work. Some men and women may want to work part-time, either for a period or indefinitely, but it is normally the company that decides whether a job must be covered by part-time or full-time workers, and the employees are forced to accept this situation with all its consequences.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that this agreement marks a step forward in the situation of part-time employment, which in most of the countries of the EU is more secure and more protected than in Spain (Fausto Miguélez, QUIT).

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