Unions oppose any increase in working time

In late 2004, there has been much debate in Slovenia over a proposal made by some employers to change current legislation so as to allow employers to increase their employees' working time by 120 hours a year, half of it unpaid. The Slovenian Employers' Association wants to discuss such an increase in 2005 during negotiations over a new 'social agreement'. All trade unions are strongly against any such lengthening of working time, and the issue may lead to major conflict.

In autumn 2004, Stojan Petric, a director of Kolektor Group, an engineering company, submitted a proposal for changes to current labour legislation. The proposed change would make it possible for companies to increase working time by half an hour per day, up to 120 hours a year in total, out of which 60 hours would be paid and 60 unpaid. Moreover, for the additional paid working time, employers should not pay taxes and social security contributions on their employees' wages (SI0411301N). The proposal was submitted to the Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs (Ministrstvo za delo, družino in socialne zadeve, MDDSZ) and to the Slovenian Employers' Association (Zdruzenje delodajalcev Slovenije, ZDS) (SI0211102F). It was also sent, but only for information purposes, to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Slovenia (Gospodarska zbornica Slovenije, GZS) and to the Metal and Electro Industries Trade Union of Slovenia (Sindikat kovinske in elektroindustrije Slovenije, SKEI), an affiliate of the Union of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia (Zveza svobodnih sindikatov Slovenije, ZSSS) (SI0210102F). Gregor Miklic, the ZSSS executive secretary, stated in Delavska anotnost (Workers' Unity), the ZSSS weekly, that the proposal would mean an increase in the working week from 40 to more than 42 hours a week, which is against Slovenian legislation.

In addition, Kolektor Group management has tried to increase the working time of its own employees in manner that critics allege is illegal, although the company is achieving good financial results (eg a 26% return on capital).

Current flexibility provisions

ZSSS, Slovenia's largest trade union organisation, is strongly against an increase of working time such as that proposed by Mr Petric. ZSSS is especially opposed to a unilateral increase imposed by employers, as this would breach the Law on Labour Relations (LLR) (SI0206101N). ZSSS believes that the LLR already enables a relatively flexible regulation of working time. In addition, Mr Miklic, the ZSSS executive secretary, said that the organisation of working time in Slovenia is at an unadvanced level, and working time is organised in an anarchic way. It is, he claims, the task of employers to make improvements in this area.

The LLR already arguably allows for a relatively flexible regulation of working time, with the help of collective agreements, in order to adjust working time arrangements to the fluctuations of the production process. One example is Article 158 of the LLR, which provides that sectoral collective agreement may determine that working time may be distributed unevenly if the limits are maintained on average over a reference period of no longer than 12 months (compared with the statutory six months stipulated by Article 147). This uneven distribution and temporary rearrangement of working time may be implemented when required by objective or technical reasons or reasons concerning the organisation of work. Another example is Article 7 of the LLR, which states that employment contracts or collective agreements may only lay down rights that are more favourable for the worker than those determined by law but that, regardless of this rule, in certain cases such as overtime work these rights can be determined differently by collective agreements. In addition the EU legislation on this point stipulates that working time can be regulated differently from the law only by means of laws, collective agreements or agreements between the social partners.

However, no employers’ organisation has so far proposed negotiating more flexible working time arrangements through collective agreements, as allowed by the law. Moreover, the new LLR provides that unilateral regulations imposed by employers ('general acts') that regulate those issues which according to the LLR should be determined by collective agreements (among them the conditions for temporary rearrangement of work) ceased to be valid nine months after the LLR entered into force. In spite of all this, employers tend to regulate working time unilaterally. When regulating working time within their companies, according to the trade unions, employers have the upper hand because the workers and unions depend on them, and usually consent to much in order to maintain employment and avoid being blamed for the company’s difficulties. Mr Miklic of ZSSS believes that this is the basic problem of working time regulation in Slovenia.

In September 2004, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a Directive amending certain key provisions of the existing EU working time Directive (EU0410205F). Among other provisions, the proposal states that (even where a worker opts out of the Directive's 48-hour maximum working week), it must be ensured that 'no worker works more than 65 hours in any one week, unless the collective agreement or agreement between the two sides of industry provides otherwise'. Mr Miklic says that the LLR is already close to this proposal by determining that when working time is unevenly arranged or temporarily rearranged, it may not exceed 56 hours a week.

Counter-arguments

The unions argue that any increase in working time has risks, diminishing the intensity and quality of work and increasing the possibility of accidents at work. The EU working time Directive was adopted in order to ensure safe and healthy working conditions and not to improve competitiveness (and diminished intensity and quality of work and an increased possibility of accidents at work do not improve competitiveness either), according to the unions. However, they believe that employers, such as Kolektor Group, do not perceive these dangers.

ZSSS is convinced that an increase in working time is not an appropriate way to increase competitiveness. It believes that it will lead to greater absence from work caused by health problems and more disability pensions, putting more pressure on public finances and consequently on employers. Dusan Semolic, the ZSSS president, said that in order to succeed in a context of globalisation Slovenia needs new technologies and workplaces with more added value, rather than increased working hours.

The Slovenian employers involved refer to the example of a number of recent agreements increasing working time at companies in Germany (DE0407106F and DE0408102N). However, ZSSS argues that the proponents of the Kolektor Group proposal disregard the facts of these deals. In some German metalworking companies, weekly working time was lengthened by agreement from 35 hours a week (the sectorally agreed normal weekly hours) but to levels that are below 40 hours, which is set as Slovenia's statutory maximum normal working week by the LLR and is also the average collectively agreed normal week. Furthermore, according to the Eurostat labour force survey, in 2002 the usual hours worked by full-time employees stood at 41.6 in Slovenia and 39.9 in Germany (TN0403104U). Finally, the unions point out that the employees of the German companies concerned also gained something in return for working longer, in the form of job security guarantees.

SKEI, an affiliate of ZSSS, is strongly against the Kolektor Group proposal, which it describes as humiliating for workers. At a meeting in Bled, Slovenia, in November 2004, Berthold Huber, the vice-president of the German Metalworkers Trade Union (Industriegewerkschaft Metall, IG Metall), supported the SKEI standpoint.

Other unions protest

Two other trade union centres - the Confederation of Trade Unions of Slovenia Pergam (Konfederacija sindikatov Pergam Slovenije, Pergam) and the Confederation of Trade Unions '90 of Slovenia (Konfederacija sindikatov '90 Slovenije, Konfederacija '90) - have demanded an urgent meeting of the tripartite Economic and Social Council of Slovenia (Ekonomsko socialni svet Slovenije, ESSS) (SI0207103F) on working time, expressing concern that decisions concerning the situation of workers might be taken without agreement among the social partners. Dusan Rebolj, the president of Pergam, said that an increase in working time is a particularly controversial issue in this respect. He perceived an attack on the LLR and workers’ rights as obstacles to labour market flexibility and threats to economic competitiveness. Any such encroachment upon workers’ rights as laid down by the LLR would be unlawful and contrary to the Constitution because the regulations concerning working time can be changed only through sectoral collective agreements, he argued. Boris Mazalin, the president of Konfederacija '90, said that the Kolektor Group proposals would diminish the possibilities of unemployed people to find employment. The new government should answer the question of whether Slovenia will continue to develop social dialogue and maintain social rights, as laid down in the current tripartite social agreement (SI0307101F), he asserted. If the social dialogue is neglected, both Pergam and Konfederacija '90 will reconsider whether to sign a new social agreement or not.

In late May 2004, the Trade Union of Doctors and Dentists of Slovenia (Sindikat zdravnikov in zobozdravnikov Slovenije, FIDES) organised a one-hour warning strike to support demands over the regulation of its members' working time. The main area of controversy focused on the duration and organisation of doctors' working time, as regulated by the Law on Doctors’ Service (amended in 2002). The union subsequently gained a number of concessions from the Ministry of Health (Ministrstvo za zdravje) (SI0406104F).

Ministry and employers' views

Aleksandra Klinar Blaznik of the public relations service of the Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs said that the Ministry stressed firmly that any proposal concerning a change to the working time legislation must be discussed by the tripartite ESSS.

The ZDS employers' organisations is of opinion that the Kolektor Group proposal on increased working time is very well prepared and worth consideration. However, Samo Hribar Milič, the ZDS general secretary, has taken a cautious approach, saying that ZDS will discuss the proposal in 2005 within the framework of the talks on a new social agreement. A unilateral introduction of changes might have harmful consequences, similar to the general warning strike in industry in spring 2004 (SI0403101F).

Commentary

As with elsewhere in the EU, in Slovenia attempts to increase working time are being met with strong opposition by all trade unions. If employers continue with such demands, and in addition try to increase working time in an illegal way in some individual companies, this may cause serious conflicts with the unions. According to the LLR, full-time workers have the right to a 30-minute daily break during work, which is included in paid working time. During the tripartite negotiations over the LLR, the employers agreed to this entitlement very unwillingly. This may help explain why they want now to increase working time. (Stefan Skledar, Institute of Macroeconomic Analysis and Development)

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