Equal opportunities measures cause controversy

The equal opportunities section of the draft Austrian national action plan on employment - produced in February 1998 in response to the EU guidelines on Member States' employment policies for 1998 - counts as one of its most controversial. It comes on the back of a vigorous campaign begun in 1996 to improve the position of women in the labour market. The Government is proposing measures to enhance the employability of women, but the social partners are finding it difficult to agree on specific measures.

Each of the EU Member States have been drawing up national employment action plans based on the EU Guidelines for Member States' employment policies 1998, following the Luxembourg"employment summit" in November 1997 (EU9711168F). The plans are due to be submitted to the Cardiff European Council in June 1998. Equal opportunities measures are one of four agreed areas covered by the national action plans, and in the Austrian draft plan (AT9802164F), as presented on 20 February 1998, four of the 19 measures cover this area. Three of these refer specifically to women and one to people with disabilities. The three other areas are employability (seven measures), entrepreneurship (five measures) and adaptability (three measures).

Employment of women

The labour force participation rate of women in Austria has been declining since 1994, though less than that of men. It stood at 61.4% in 1996 as compared with 76.2% for men. The decline, according to introductory statements in the draft employment plan, is linked to longer education and training periods before labour market entry and to earlier retirement. The rate of unemployment is persistently higher among women than among men. This is linked to a greater share of long-term unemployment among women.

The goals of the plan are to: make substantially more European Social Fund (ESF) finance available in Austria for the training of women; raise substantially the support for the apprenticing of women; and increase the regional mobility of women substantially.

Towards these ends, the draft plan proposes the following:

  • more training opportunities for women seeking work;
  • regional initiatives to train and retrain women in which local, regional and national authorities cooperate with the social partners;
  • widening of the eligibility for unemployment benefits during training, together with minimum standards of childcare provision (including opening hours, pricing and the qualifications of childminders);
  • gender-neutral night work regulations by no later than 2001, together with the necessary protective measures (AT9802163F);
  • legal reform to increase the pressure on companies to create career plans for women, including greater leverage for works councils; and
  • facilitating the return to work after periods of caring for children or the elderly.

However, there is a blank space under the heading of financing, which is still being worked on. The above suggestions are basically those of the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs (Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Gesundheit und Soziales, BMAGS), and the Ministry for Economic Affairs (Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Angelegenheiten, BMwA) does not agree on all counts. In particular it cautions against the obligation to institute career plans since this might become both costly and encumbering for small and medium-sized enterprises.

More childcare facilities

According to a survey by the Central Statistical Office (Österreichisches Statistisches Zentralamt, ÖSTAT), Austria lacks approximately 140,000 childcare places. This is especially true for children under three years of age and for schoolchildren. Opening hours are often a problem, and so are the costs. All this varies regionally since childcare is under the jurisdiction of the nine provinces.

The Federal Government's goals are to create another 18,000 childcare places in 1999 by injecting ATS 600 million, which must be doubled by the provinces, and it wants to create federal regulations on the qualifications and employment standards for childminders. The latter is intended to result in about 3,000 positions with full social security coverage. Furthermore, companies are to be supported in creating kindergartens, and childcare subsidies are to be retargeted.

Return to work

The main problems for women's return to work after care-related spells away from paid employment are diagnosed as a lack of adequate childcare facilities, a lack of jobs compatible with continued care, and occupational "dequalification" as the absence from paid employment gets longer. In 1996, around 3,500 women were supported in their return to work, and the programme is to be expanded. A number of detailed measures are suggested in addition:

  • entitlement to part-time parental leave, if the demand can reasonably be placed on the company;
  • entitlement to reduced working time until the child starts going to school;
  • extension of the period of protection against dismissal after parental leave from four weeks to 26 weeks;
  • entitlement of parents on leave to information on important developments in the company;
  • more flexible notification periods for parental leave;
  • consultancy offers to companies for the management of returns from parental leave and of reduced working time;
  • better information to companies about the return subsidy;
  • information materials and counselling for parents on leave and for "returners";
  • specific returner programmes targeted at skill groups and at the duration of absence from employment; and
  • training centres for returners.

A cost estimate was not provided. The Ministry of Economic Affairs voiced opposition against the first two points and the more flexible notification periods. Since then, the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) has expressed opposition to any of the increased entitlements and especially to the extension of the period of protection against dismissal.

Commentary

Given the resistance from employers, the Ministry of Labour's catalogue of measures is likely to undergo extensive amendment before it reaches parliament. A number of measures will probably be relegated to collective agreements and from there to works agreements, where they will become fused with career plans for women (AT9801157N). The collective agreements, in turn, will be slow in coming. This will affect the measures concerning parental leave in particular, but it is also true of the career plans and other measures to further women's careers. Both these issues are of great concern to the Government, quite apart from the national action plan and are being complemented by measures to be taken outside the plan that are meant to address more directly the widening income gap between women and men (AT9710136N).

The decline of the participation rate has at least partly been due to the immigration of family members who either do not wish to enter employment or are not permitted to.

The equal opportunities section of the plan is clearly the most controversial between the social partners and within the Government. Not all involved in drafting and agreeing the plan see the need. The two other issues dominating the debate are working time reductions and youth employment. All of these are argued in terms of redistribution and justice by organisations representing labour and in terms of cost by employers. (August Gächter, IHS)

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