Swedish employers urged to negotiate on the reduction of working time

In the 1997 bargaining round, many trade unions have called for a reduction of working time, but the employers have consistently rejected their claims. Now the Government is attempting to pressurise the employers with hints of legislation. However, the proposal for a new Act on Working Time that is in prospect for the end of 1997 is unlikely to contain any provisions to that effect.

"Negotiate a reduction of working time - or else public opinion will force through legislation". That was the message in an article written jointly by Prime MinisterGöran Persson and the chair of the Swedish Metal Workers' Union, Göran Johnsson, and published in the evening paper Aftonbladet on 28 April 1997. Considering that one of the authors is the Prime Minister of Sweden, it could be seen as a veiled threat to the employers. In the 1997 bargaining round, several trade unions called for a cut in working hours, and the employers consistently rejected them.

The Swedish Government will present a bill on a new Act on Working Time after the Social Democrats' party conference in September. Two issues are on the agenda:

  • more flexible provisions than those of the 1982 Act on Working Time; and
  • bringing Swedish legislation fully in line with the European Community Directive on working time (93/104/EEC).

The Minister for Labour and Nordic Affairs, Margareta Winberg, has also intimated that she is not unsympathetic to legislation on a general reduction of working time, but for several reasons it is unlikely that the Government will propose legislation to that effect at the present time.

Reduced working time

The Government is in favour of a reduction in working time but it believes that it should be achieved by means of collective bargaining. Workers could receive improvements in their working life without a substantial increase in pay and the results of collective bargaining would be appropriate for economic conditions pertaining in each sector. This was also what the Official Committee on Working Time suggested in its report to the Government last year. However, neither the Committee nor the Government is convinced that shorter working hours would lead to a reduction in unemployment.

Two of the three trade union confederations are in agreement with the Government on all this. The employers also favour agreements - at least in principle. In fact few employers' organisations have been ready to enter into real negotiations about shorter working time, although some have agreed to set up joint committees with their counterparts to investigate the matter.

The only union that advocates legislation is the largest confederation for salaried employees, TCO (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation). It points out that it is the only confederation that has a majority of women as members, and that women generally are more in favour of shorter working time than men since they still tend to have first-hand responsibility for children and housework along with their paid job. A general reduction of working time would give both men and women improved opportunities to be involved in the school activities and the growth and development of their children.

TCO has therefore proposed a compromise which takes the whole complexity of working time into consideration. On the one hand, machines and equipment can be more effectively utilised and lead to productivity increases with more flexible working hours and less overtime work needed. On the other hand, irregular working hours lead to a greater risk of accidents and illness unless combined with a reduction of working time. TCO argues that the employers are more likely to be able to afford to pay for such a reduction with the savings from increases in productivity and the reduced costs for overtime work.

More flexible rules

Many would argue that Sweden already has very flexible regulations on working time. Trade unions and employers' organisations can deviate from the regulations by means of central collective agreements if they wish and in almost every sector they have taken advantage of this possibility. The central agreements in turn usually specify that both sides at company level can supplement these terms, and many do so. One consequence of such collective agreements is that in practice the majority of work places are excluded from state supervision of working time arrangements.

The Working Time Committee also suggested that provisions should be made even more flexible. One of the central points is that the Act should authorise trade unions at company level to conclude collective agreements on deviations from the regulations without the need to obtain permission from the central union. The prohibition on night work should be repealed, and the supervision by the National Board of Occupational Safety and Health should be abolished universally.

Some of the Committee's suggestions are highly controversial to the unions. The association of employers' organisations in the private sector, Svenska Arbetsgivareföreningen (SAF), on the other hand believes that they do not go far enough.

Implementation of the working time Directive

When the November 1996 deadline approached for implementing the Directive on certain aspects of the organisation of working time in the EU member states, the Swedish Parliament merely decided on a form of "provisional" implementation, by leaving the material provisions of the 1982 Act in place and adding a sentence stating that collective agreements which deviated from the Act must not contravene the provisions of the Directive. Experts on Community law have strongly criticised this course of action, and the Working Time Committee has proposed that the rules of the Directive should feature in the Act itself.

Commentary

The policy of attempting to force the employers and the trade unions together with veiled hints or threats of coming legislation is commonly used by the Government these days. This time such threats sound rather hollow, since it seems to be the firm conviction of the Prime Minister and two of the trade union confederations that the economy cannot sustain a general reduction of working time at the present time. In any case the Government must give the parties some time to bargain, which makes it therefore very unlikely that any legislative measure will be presented during 1997. At the same time there is a strong strand of opinion in the Social Democrat Party, especially among its women and trade union members, for shorter working hours. What Mr Persson and Mr Johnsson may have achieved is to have acknowledged this view and simultaneously won some time. (Kerstin Ahlberg, NIWL )

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