Working time and employment: the balance sheet so far

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Since autumn 1997, the reduction of working time as a means of creating employment has increasingly featured as a theme in Spanish industrial relations. The trade unions have begun to ensure that this issue is introduced on to the bargaining agenda at all levels, though by summer 1998 there have been few results and progress is proving difficult to achieve.

Since the autumn of 1997 the debate about the reduction and reorganisation of working time has become increasingly important in Spain. The decisions of the governments of France (FR9806113F) and Italy (IT9803159N) to establish a 35-hour working week by law had a great impact in Spain, because the trade unions, the employers' associations, the Government and the left-wing parties have all had to adopt positions on the subject.

In 1997, the positions of the social partners were very divergent, as they still are in 1998. The unions called for a general reduction in working hours through a combination of legislation and collective bargaining, as a measure for job creation. The employers' associations rejected a general reduction in working hours and stated that the matter should be dealt with by collective bargaining at a sectoral or company level. The People's Party (PP) Government refused to intervene, leaving the question in the hands of the social partners. Finally, among the opposition parties the Socialist Party (PSOE) was in favour of a decentralised reduction in working hours through agreement among the social partners, whereas the United Left (IU) supported a general reduction by law (ES9711133F).

Despite these differences, over 1998 the reduction of working time in an attempt to create employment has increasingly featured as a theme in Spanish industrial relations. The unions have begun to ensure that this issue is introduced onto the bargaining agenda at all levels, though as yet there have been few results and progress is proving difficult to achieve.

Negotiations between unions and employers' associations

The results of intersectoral negotiations between trade unions and employers' associations have so far failed to meet the expectations that had been created.

One of the commitments that the social partners had adopted in their intersectoral agreement on collective bargaining in April 1997 (ES9706211F) was to begin a process of negotiation on the administration, duration and redistribution of working hours in order to contribute to job creation and improvements in the operation of companies. The negotiations started in October of that year with the setting up of the "group on working hours and working time" (grupo sobre jornada y tiempo de trabajo), composed of representatives of the UGT and CC.OO trade union confederations and CEOE-CEPYME for the employers.

The unions undertook this process in order to reach an agreement on reducing working hours and job creation with the employers' associations. However, negotiations were delayed because the CEOE was very reluctant to enter into an agreement of this type. The employers' association suggested only establishing general criteria on working time flexibility, and leaving the number of working hours to be decided through collective bargaining in sectors and companies. This attitude has at times threatened the continuity of the negotiation process.

The balance sheet of the group's first nine months of existence is therefore quite limited: the position of the employers' associations is very far from that of the unions and no agreement has been reached. The only concrete outcome has been a recently published descriptive study on the development of working hours, which shows that both agreed and real working time is increasing. This trend can be explained by reference to changes in production structures (permitted by collective agreements allowing for wider working hours) and to working conditions (such as increasing overtime). Nevertheless, at least negotiations are underway. CEOE has finally agreed to enter negotiations that consider the reorganisation of working time and its duration, in order to establish the framework for collective bargaining. However, the employers' position is still far from the unions' view of working time reduction as an employment-creation measure, and the results of these negotiations remain uncertain.

Negotiations between unions and the government

Meanwhile, the trade unions have made repeated demands to the government to open negotiations on working time reduction. This is partly due to the difficulty of reaching an agreement with the employers' associations, but mainly due to developments in the unions' positions, and in particular that of UGT.

Since its 37th congress held in March 1998, UGT has advocated a general reduction in working time by law without a reduction in wages (ES9804251F). Although CC.OO continues to have a less defined position on this topic, trying to reconcile the legislative route with collective bargaining, trade union pressure on the government to take action on working time and employment has now increased.

In June 1998, UGT and CC.OO produced a joint proposal on the reduction and reorganisation of working time as an employment policy. In it they urge the government immediately to enter into negotiations with the unions on creating the appropriate regulatory and financial instruments for introducing a general reduction in working hours to stimulate job creation. This proposal also covers the negotiation of other aspects of working time such as overtime, part-time employment, time off for training and the birth of children, and early retirement. The unions had already tried to incorporate some of these aspects into negotiations on the national employment plan (ES9712235F), though without success.

So far it does not seem that the union demands will receive an immediate answer. The government believes that any regulatory initiative on reducing working time must be preceded by an agreement amongst the social partners. Negotiations between the unions and the government began at the beginning of July 1998 (ES9806256F), but at the moment working time is not on the agenda.

Collective bargaining

The results of collective bargaining on shorter working hours and job creation have been quite limited. Since April 1997, agreements on flexible and shorter working hours accompanied by commitments to job creation have been reached in some large companies, but many problems must still be overcome.

It is therefore significant that one of the most ambitious proposed agreements has met with failure. In the negotiation of the collective agreement for savings banks, the employers' association, Acarl, sought to introduce the 35-hour week in exchange for extending opening hours. Bargaining ended in June 1998 with a preliminary agreement signed initially, on the union sides, by CC.OO and CSI-CSIF stating that 7% of offices would introduce extended working hours, with an estimated creation of around 2,800 jobs. The new working pattern would consist of a morning and afternoon shift from Mondays to Fridays, with the chance for 2% of branches to agree different hours and open on Saturday mornings. However, the draft agreement produced a great deal of tension amongst the unions. UGT was against extending opening hours (especially working on Saturdays) and CSI-CSIF finally decided not to ratify. Given this, not even CC.OO could ratify, because it did not have a big enough majority to sign an agreement that would be made generally applicable in the sector.

Regional initiatives

In the short term, it is at a regional level that we find the clearest prospects for progress towards reducing working time. The cases of Catalonia and Madrid, where the process is quite advanced, illustrate different ways of achieving these goals. Significantly, these two regions are governed not by the opposition but, respectively, by CiU, the PP's nationalist partner, and PP itself.

In Catalonia, the unions, the employers' associations and the regional government signed a "Pact for Employment" in May (ES9805154F). Shorter working time was one of the main obstacles during the negotiations. The unions wished to reach an agreement to stimulate the creation of permanent employment through shorter working hours or abolishing overtime. The Catalan government was in principle willing to support a measure of this type, provided that it was carried out with the consensus of the employers' organisations, which had many reservations about it. The Pact finally offered a way out of this situation: the social partners were given a period of one month to reach a formal agreement on job creation and working time; otherwise, the Catalan government declared that it would issue a decree. The period has now expired and the regional government has produced a draft decree that is being revised by the social partners and is expected to come into force in autumn 1998. The decree will promote net creation of employment and will affect both full-time and part-time permanent contracts. Companies will adopt its provisions voluntarily and workers' representatives will participate in its implementation and monitoring.

More recently, in Madrid the regional government has announced that it is willing to promote job creation through shorter working hours, provided that the social partners can first agree on a pact on this topic. Trade unions and employers' associations are in agreement with this initiative and expect to start negotiations shortly.

Commentary

Over the last few months, the trade unions have refined and clarified their positions and strategies on shorter working hours and employment to a remarkable degree, despite a lack of unity within and between them. They have made an effort to define their positions and to find areas of negotiation and agreement with the government and employers' associations at both national and regional level. In this process, important progress has been made: at national level, negotiations with the employers' associations on general frameworks for collective bargaining have been resumed; and at regional level certain governments are promoting agreements or measures to stimulate shorter working hours and job creation.

Nevertheless, this process has had little impact on employment. The regional initiatives have limited resources and it is very difficult for bargaining to lead to agreements in this field. There is not yet a sufficient consensus to introduce a regulatory and financial framework promoting shorter working hours as an employment policy in a more effective and general way. To reach this objective, the unions must reinforce their unity of action and obtain greater social and institutional support for these proposals. (María Caprile, Fundación CIREM)

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