Renewal of chemicals agreement centres on working time

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Bargaining over the renewal of the collective agreement for the Italian chemicals industry started in September 1997. The trade unions' platform of demands contains innovative proposals for the management of working time, which is seen as a way both to create new jobs and maintain current employment. The platform envisages not only a reduction of hours but also a new regime for overtime and the introduction of "work-entry hours", whereby new recruits could in some circumstances work fewer than normal hours and receive equivalently lower pay.

The context

Negotiations over the renewal of the collective agreement in the chemicals industry officially got underway in September 1997. FULC, the federation of the three confederal trade unions in the industry - FILCEA CGIL, FLERICA CISL and UILCER UIL- had already presented a platform of demands to the chemicals employers' association, Federchimica, at the end of July. At a preliminary meeting on 25 September it was decided to set up two joint committees which would examine, respectively, collective bargaining structure and working time.

The renewal of the chemicals contract comes at a moment of special significance for Italian industrial relations:

  • talks are about to begin between the Government and the social partners reviewing the tripartite central agreement of 23 July 1993, which provided for a collective bargaining structure with two articulated levels - the industry and the company levels. The Prime Minister has appointed a study commission which will prepare a report on the implementation and outcomes of the agreement (IT9709212F); and
  • when negotiations began on renewal of the chemicals contract, discussions between the Government and the social partners on reform of the welfare state were still in progress. Since then, the Communist Reconstruction Party (Partito di Rifondazione Comunista) has made its support for the Prodi Government's finance bill conditional on the introduction by law of a 35-hour working week (IT9710133N).

The platform of demands

Since the 1980s, the chemicals industry has undergone profound restructuring which, in particular, has affected employment. Moreover, the industry is particularly vulnerable to international competition. This means that constant corporate reorganisation is necessary, even though the most intense phase of restructuring is now over. Indeed, Giorgio Squinzi, the chair of the Federchimica employers' association, insisted on the need for high levels of flexibility in both work organisation and the pay structure during the preliminary meeting with the unions.

One of the key issues to be negotiated is working time, and it is here that FULC's proposals warrant particular mention. In fact, one of the most innovative features of its platform is a proposal for a new regime for working time, intended both to create and protect jobs. More specifically, the union has put forward three proposals:

  • a reduction of working time with no change in wage levels. FULC proposes the introduction by agreement of the 35-hour working week. This reduction in hours should be differentiated by job category so that shiftworkers in flow production systems benefit the most. According to the unions, the reduction in working time should be offset by the productivity increases achieved in the sector;
  • a new regime for overtime. Hours of overtime working should not be paid, as under the present system, but accumulated by the worker in what the union calls an "hours bank" (banca delle ore). The worker concerned would be able to "cash in" these hours as time off, according to his or her requirements. Moreover, these hours could be utilised within each work team to adjust its work schedule to the pace of production; and
  • introduction of"work-entry hours"( orario di ingresso). This scheme consists of a weekly work schedule of between 24 and 32 hours, with an equivalent reduction in pay. It could be used for newly-hired workers in economically depressed areas where the unemployment rate is above the national average, or where "area pacts" (IT9704203F) have been signed. Moreover, a reduced work schedule of this kind could be used to handle redundancies without resorting to "social shock absorbers" (such as the Wages Guarantee Fund, which makes payments to workers who have been laid off).

Federchimica has not yet officially announced its reaction to the unions' proposals. In fact, the key issues in renewal of the contract were not addressed at the preliminary meeting on 25 September 1997, where discussion instead generally concerned the problems of the chemicals industry and industrial relations in the sector between 1994 and 1997. The next meeting is scheduled for 21 October 1997, although bargaining over renewal of the contract is expected to last for around a year.

Commentary

During the 1990s, industrial relations in the Italian chemicals industry have been characterised by the conclusion of collective agreements with several innovative features, such as a reform of the job classification system and the introduction of "participation bonuses". The new FULC platform also contains a number of novel aspects in terms of its working time proposals. Apart from reduced working hours - an issue currently being discussed in other sectors besides chemicals - these novelties are the new regime for overtime and the introduction of the "work-entry" schedule.

According to the unions, the creation of an "hours bank" will meet the needs both of workers to organise their work and leisure time differently, and of firms to adjust working time to production needs. However, it should be borne in mind that overtime is one of the chief instruments used by firms to make working time more flexible, and it has been the object of negotiations between trade unions and the Confindustria employers' confederation, which have not so far been concluded. At issue is the unions' demand for restrictions on the use of overtime.

The aim behind the introduction of the work-entry schedule is the creation of new jobs, above all by freeing working time. In this sense the proposal differs from "work-entry wages", a scheme which envisages lower wages for the same amount of work. In the case of the work-entry schedule, the reduction in wages is related to the number of hours worked. (Marco Trentini, Ires Lombardia)

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