First collective agreement signed on teleworking

In what may be regarded as a pilot scheme, three trade unions have signed a collective agreement on teleworking with employers in the mineral oils industry. The agreement, which came into effect in May 1997, represents the first time standards have been set by the social partners for work practices made possible by new technologies.

Agreed on 14 April 1997 and finally signed at the end of June, a collective agreement on teleworking (Telearbeit) covering industrial enterprises in the mineral oils sector took effect from 1 May 1997. It was concluded between the Association of the Mineral Oils Industry (Fachverband der Erdölindustrie) - which forms part of the Federal Section Industry (Bundessektion Industrie) of the Austrian Chamber of Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) - for employers and three trade unions: the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) covering trade in mineral oils as well as salaried employees in manufacturing and extraction; the Union of Chemical Workers (Gewerkschaft der Chemiearbeiter) covering waged workers in manufacturing; and the Metals Mining Energy Trade Union (Gewerkschaft Metall Bergbau Energie, GMBE) covering waged workers in extraction.

The mineral oils industry has about 6,000 employees in Austria, of whom 3,500 are salaried. The number of salaried employees has been declining gently, and that of waged employees more rapidly. This is not a large industry in Austrian terms, but the new agreement's significance lies not in numbers covered, but in being the first of its kind, and in having been made against significant odds. Precisely because mineral oils is a small industry comprising only 28 industrial enterprises which, in addition, is dominated by one refining company and a few large distributors, the relations between companies and trade unions have always been friendly. This encouraged the trade unions to set up a joint working group and to initiate negotiations in January 1996. According to trade union representatives, the negotiations were easy so long as they were conducted at company level. Companies and trade unions focused on the technical aspects, underwent a common learning process and gradually came to agree on the essentials. The talks became more difficult as soon as the other industry associations were informed of the tentative results. Some of them would clearly have preferred no precedent to be set.

The agreement

The main points of the teleworking agreement are set out below.

  • The key concept is that of the "external workplace". This is a workplace outside company premises where an employee regularly spends parts of her or his normal working hours.
  • Neither employer nor employee can impose the use of an external workplace. The agreement between employer and employee has to be made in writing. It has to include the division of working time between the plant and the external workplace. The works council has the right to be involved.
  • Existing plant-level agreements remain in force, provided they are more advantageous for the employee than the new collective agreement.
  • The norms of the Employee Liability Act (Dienstnehmerhaftpflichtgesetz, DNHG) are extended to all other members of the employee's household.
  • Weekly working time has to conform with in-plant practices. Overtime only counts as such if the extra hours were worked on order, or if a time limit was set for a particular task that can normally be achieved only by exceeding normal working hours. Time spent commuting between the plant and the external workplace does not count as working time if the journey arises from the agreed division of working time between the two locations.
  • Necessary equipment has to be provided by the employer.
  • All expenses incurred by the employee, but specifically rent, energy and phone costs, have to be reimbursed by the employer. Lump-sum reimbursements can be agreed. This does not include travel costs attached to the agreed division of time between plant and external workplace.
  • The social integration of external employees with the company workforce has to be facilitated. A special effort should be made to enable external employees to participate actively in company meetings. Their ability to participate in formal staff meetings has to be guaranteed and such time has to be counted as working time.
  • Access to training and further education must be facilitated.
  • The works council must be informed of all external employees. It has the right to peruse the electronic means of communication and to be reimbursed for the costs incurred in caring for external employees.
  • Both, employee and employer can cancel the use of the external workplace if they can give sufficient reason to do so and observe a notice period of three months. What constitutes sufficient reason in the case of the employer is specified in the law, and includes changes in the work process or the product, plant closures or relocations, mergers, or changes in ownership. On the part of the employee, sufficient reason is specified in the collective agreement itself. This includes changes in living circumstances that may make the use of the external workplace unfeasible, specifically a change in abode or of the family. If the rental contract is terminated by the lessee, the employer has to be informed immediately. The employee is entitled to continued employment in the plant.

The mineral oils collective agreement does not address the issue of use of a company personal computer by an external employee's family members. However, this has since been identified as a problem to be addressed in an unrelated civil service pilot scheme being conducted in one provincial administration.

The typical teleworker

The "typical" teleworker in the mineral oils industry is salaried, and the more common term is "external employee". Their precise number is not known, but is put at between 50 and 100, most of whom are oil company area representatives, each overseeing a number of petrol stations. With the advent of computerised data collection and telecommunications, regional offices have become obsolete: instead the area representative now collects data during, for instance, four days of the week, and then spends Friday doing office work on a company-owned personal computer at home, from which he or she transmits the week's report. Scientists are another, though smaller, group of teleworkers in the industry.

Acceptance

According to the trade unions, employees appear to appreciate the new collective agreement, while other trade unions, employers, and the general public are showing considerable interest. In the course of two months, the GPA registered around 300 requests for information after a press release, a mailing, and posting on the trade union's home page.

Commentary

The agreement is important for at least two reasons. Firstly, it was a proving grounds for negotiating agreements covering activities arising from new technologies. The expertise gained by both employers and trade unions will be helpful in facilitating numerically more significant agreements in other industries, especially those with significant numbers of external employees. They now have a clear reference point regarding the contents, the scope and the depth of agreements to be made in the future. Significantly, the expertise gained stretches to negotiating agreements covering several sectors or, as one might call them, vertically integrated agreements. The protracted negotiations over an agreement covering the entire computing industry - which comprises manufacturing, trade, servicing, and banking - may be the first to benefit. Secondly, it establishes a new type of agreement consisting mainly of guidelines for good practice rather than outright regulation. It is an obvious attempt to balance broad regulation with leaving leeway for company-specific matters and the ongoing development of technology and work. Both these innovations will be of considerable significance in industry and in services in the years to come.

The mineral oils industry may seem an unlikely candidate for a first collective agreement on teleworking. While there was sufficient reason for an agreement to be made, the good relations in the industry were certainly also important in making it possible. It seems likely that further agreements of this kind will be made in other industries during the next few years. According to a recent survey, 2% of Austrian employees regard themselves as teleworkers, and two-thirds of the respondents regard teleworking as a positive development. (August Gächter, IHS)

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