New agreement signals better deal for retail workers

Social dialogue in Austria’s retail sector has led to significant improvements for its employees, a large share of whom are women. The new collective agreement secured significant wage increases in the autumn collective bargaining round and improvements in working conditions include the crediting of up to ten months’ childcare or family hospice leave when calculating wage levels and long service payments. A recent Supreme Court verdict has also put an end to the practice of underpaying cashiers in the sector.

Background

The 2011 autumn collective bargaining round in the retail sector brought about significant improvements for employees, the majority of whom are women.

Altogether the sector employs about 650,000 workers and about three quarters of them are women. The Federal Economic Chamber (WKO) says 520,000 of these are white-collar workers and apprentices and 130,000 are blue-collar workers, including employees who work minimal hours.

The sectoral collective agreement for white-collar employees is the largest collective agreement in Austria, covering the sector that has the largest share of women. About 45% of its employees work part time, and 56% of part time workers are female.

The autumn bargaining round was controversial and almost called off – a conclusion was only reached after protest threats from the union just before the start of the Christmas sales season.

Encouraged by the successful outcome of collective bargaining negotiations in the metalworking sector (AT1112011I), and a retail sectoral study released by the Chamber of Labour (AK), the employees’ side demanded a significant wage increase and improvements in the framework conditions. The AK sectoral study had shown retail companies were doing very well, with sector turnover in the first half of 2011 almost 8% higher than in the first half of 2010.

Results of collective bargaining

The negotiating parties, the Union of Salaried Employees, Graphical Workers and Journalists (GPA-djp) and the commerce section of the WKO, agreed to increase minimum wages by an average of 3.6%, a compromise reached after an initial demand of 4.2% by the trade union and an initial offer of 2.9% by the employer organisation.

The wage increases differ according to groups; low income groups earning less than €1,500 gross per month receive a lump sum of €50 (which means an increase of up to 3.85%) and those earning more than €1,500 gross receive a minimum wage increase of 3.5%. The apprenticeship remuneration was increased by 3.9%, and thus now ranges from €475 gross per month for apprentices in their first year to €886 in their fourth and last year.

Framework conditions for sectoral employees were significantly improved, with the following changes:

  • special payments such as holiday pay and Christmas bonuses are to be paid a month earlier than before, now at the end of June and the end of October, respectively;
  • 10 months’ worth of childcare and family hospice leave periods will be included when classifying wage groups, and for service anniversary bonus payments, irrespective of the length of time an employee has worked for a specific company, thus taking into account the high staff turnover in the sector. This measure is seen as a step towards reducing the gender pay gap.

The same wage agreement and adjustments in working conditions were adopted in the collective agreement for sectoral blue-collar workers negotiated between the vida union and the WKO commerce section.

The employers’ side observed that the relatively high wage agreement in the metalworking sector had influenced negotiations in the retail sector and made them more difficult. René Tritscher, Negotiator for the WKO’s commerce section, considers the deal to be ‘just acceptable’.

Stephan Mayer-Heinisch, President of the Confederation of German Retail (Handelsverband), the employer organisation for medium and large companies, considered the increase as ‘astonishingly high and difficult to digest’ and suggested conducting wage bargaining at six-monthly instead of annual intervals.

Franz Georg Brantner, Chair of the GPA-djp, was particularly pleased that workers would be given credit for periods of leave and considered this the most important success.

Cashiers’ wages and opening hours

Before the collective bargaining process began, discussions arose on the underpayment of cashiers working in the retail sector, and on shop opening hours.

Cashiers

Following a lawsuit brought by an employee, the Supreme Court issued a verdict stating that employees with cashier duties that occupied over 50% of their working time must be classified in a higher wage category than those without cashier duties.

The trade unions said this form of underpayment was a widespread practice and affected as many as 25,000 employees. The union tackled the issue and while almost all larger store chains quickly adjusted the wages of affected employees, H&M was a prominent example of a store that has so far refused to do so.

Instead, as der Standard newspaper reported, the clothing chain issued a letter to all its branch managers giving instructions that every employee should spend less than half their working time at the till, in order to justify not paying employees with cashier duties higher wages.

Sunday work

A discussion on extending retail opening hours to Sundays, started by employers, triggered a controversial debate in the sector. Trade unions are against this liberalisation of opening hours, arguing that this would neither create new jobs nor increase consumption, but just shift consumers’ buying habits.

Under existing law, only stores located in tourist regions are allowed to open on Sundays. According to the working climate index by the AK, some 36,000 sectoral employees currently work occasionally on Sundays. Of these Sunday workers, men are overrepresented compared to their share in the sector as a whole (38% compared to 25%), as are migrant workers (24%).

On average, these workers have a lower income than those employees not working on Sundays. Thus, it appears that those workers who are lowest in the hierarchy, with a lack of choice, work on Sundays, possibly being threatened with job loss if they refuse.

The widespread extension of opening hours to Sunday however, has so far not been implemented, with the exception of tourist areas as already mentioned.

Bernadette Allinger, FORBA (Working Life Research Centre)

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