Sunday work - recent debates and developments

Over 1997, the Austrian social partners and the public have become engaged in a debate on the merits and disadvantages of Sunday work. Positive effects on employment and turnover are cited by proponents, the loss of family life by opponents. An unusual aspect of the debate is its focus on individual enterprises rather than the wellbeing of the national economy.

Work on Sunday is in principle prohibited in Austria. However, the law permits exemptions to be made by the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs for basic necessities or for economic or technological reasons, and by the heads of provincial governments for exceptional regional supply purposes. New legislation in 1997 also opened the door for the social partners to conclude collective agreements permitting Sunday work if this is deemed necessary in order to safeguard or create employment (AT9703107N). If the proposed Sunday work is to be only temporary and connected with the introduction of new technology, an exemption can also be granted by the Central Labour Inspectorate (Zentrales Arbeitsinspektorat). Recently, a number of enterprises - some industrial, some in retailing, some in other services - have made demands for such exemptions. This has, in turn, led to a debate among the social partners and the broader public about the use and abuse of Sunday work regulations.

Production

Philips, the Dutch-based electronics multinational, has factories in Vienna and in Lebring, a small town in southern Austria, not far from Graz. At the latter site, production around the clock, seven days a week, will be introduced from the beginning of February 1998. In a shopfloor ballot the workforce voted for the introduction of this working time pattern, along with a four-shift model and a reduction of weekly working time by two hours while maintaining monthly incomes. Pay premia for working on Sundays and holidays will be 50%. Some 300 employees will initially be involved in the scheme.

At Lebring, Philips is currently shifting production from TV to computer screens and investing ATS 1,300 million. At the Vienna plant, video cassette recorders (VCR s) are produced. The Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, in June 1997, granted the right to produce circuit boards on Sundays. Technological reasons were cited. This was bound up, however, with a promise by Philips to make the Vienna site a competence centre for the production of VCR circuit boards. Meanwhile the internal negotiations about the terms and conditions of Sunday work are yet to be concluded and framed in a works agreement. The plant employs about 2,200 workers, of whom 300-350 are expected to become involved in shift cycles which include Sundays. The works council has been demanding a 100% Sunday bonus payable either in cash or in time off in lieu, and a restriction on the use of temporary staff.

Retailing

The most heated Sunday work debates are taking place in retailing. Shops in tourist areas, hospitals, railway stations and airports are all covered by an exemption from the ban on Sunday work. The designation as a tourist area is up to the provincial government. Thus, for instance, Vienna, one of the country's foremost tourist destinations, has not been declared a tourist area while some of the smaller towns bordering on it have been.

One of Europe's largest shopping complexes is just south of Vienna, the older parts of which are situated in a small town which has been a tourist area for a long time, though shops there always remained closed on Sundays. However, a new addition, a car-dealing centre, intends to open on Sundays. Other new parts of the complex are situated in an adjacent town originally without the status of tourist area. In November 1997, the provincial government granted an exemption for the new parts to keep shops open as long as it was only members of the proprietors' families who worked on Sunday. This had been preceded and was followed by acrimonious exchanges between the shop owners and the sector's trade union. On 20 April 1997, the former had protested against Sunday closure by keeping their shops open from 11.00 to 19.00. This provoked demonstrations, including appearances by all the relevant trade union leaders. Negotiations followed over the summer, culminating in the granting of the exemption. Nonetheless the exemption was greeted by a new demonstration on 20 November 1997 mostly by trade union youth organisations, catholic organisations and rival firms which are not permitted to stay open.

In a recent initiative, the Wirtschaftsbund, the employers' organisation within the christian democratic People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP), suggested exempting family enterprises from regulations on opening hours. A person's family is defined as their spouse, siblings, children and parents. The idea is to open a niche for such enterprises that would help them to survive against the competition of large retailers and shopping centres, and at the same time to provide an additional service for shoppers and tourists. This is felt to be all the more necessary since the introduction of Saturday afternoon opening in January 1997 is reckoned to have benefited the large retailers far more than the small.

A recent Gallup poll in Vienna has shown 86% of retailers and 65% of consumers to oppose Sunday opening. Accordingly, the city government and the Vienna Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Wien, WK Wien) are united in opposing any liberalisation of opening hours, including any exemption for family enterprises. In this they are also united with the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA), the single largest trade union within the Austrian Federation of Trade Unions (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB). The GPA's president was quoted in the press as saying that dozens of lawyers would start looking for ways to make Sunday opening hours available for all enterprises once an exception for was made for any of them. The Austrian Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ), or at least the chair of its Trade Section, has come out clearly in favour of Sunday opening.

For a time, in summer 1997, Austria's largest bakery opened some of its shops for a few hours on Sunday, but discontinued the service when it proved unprofitable. In order not to invite too much official animosity there had been no publicity. Nonetheless complaints were lodged with the labour inspectorate by the trade union.

Railways

At the beginning of June 1997, the leadership of the Union of Railway Workers (Gewerkschaft der Eisenbahner) suggested that the Austrian Federal Railways (Österreichische Bundesbahnen, ÖBB) should better exploit the country's ban on lorry traffic between 15.00 on Saturday and midnight on Sunday. The union felt that this might allow the expansion of employment at ÖBB by between 500 and 1,000 workers. Management declined, arguing that companies requiring weekend service were obtaining what they needed and that shunting yards lying idle on Sundays did so because there was no demand from customers.

Commentary

In 1997, Sunday work became an issue in Austrian industrial relations. The debates were conducted publicly, and were at times comparatively heated. The issue is likely to simmer on in 1998, encompassing also the continuation of a number of public holidays - of which Austria has an above average number. Lines of confrontation are not very clearly drawn. Employers partly want to be protected against having to stay open on Sundays for reasons of competition, and partly want to open in a hope for greater turnover. Likewise, trade unionists at times see an advantage in terms of employment but at other times fear a proliferation of exemptions without positive employment effects. A clear majority of employees and consumers appear to be opposed, wanting one day of the week where they are protected against having to leave their private sphere either for work or for shopping. (August Gächter, IHS)

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