ÖGB sets out programme of action

In the run up to the general elections and its 14th federal congress in October 1999, Austria's ÖGB trade union confederation has been outlining its short- and medium-term goals. The top three medium-term goals are more full-time employment, less spurious self-employment, and income-based accession criteria for countries seeking to join the EU.

The president of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) set out three medium-term policy goals in an interview with the Der Standard daily newspaper at the end of July 1999: more full-time employment; a reduction in spurious self-employment; and income-based accession criteria for countries seeking to join the EU. An overhaul of the social security system, particularly its financing, and a re-evaluation of male and female occupations in terms of pay, were added to the list of priorities at the end of August. In the newspaper interview, theÖGB president stated that in the short run - the autumn of 1999 - the harmonisation of the legal treatment of wage earners and salary earners would take top priority (AT9906153N). He did not rule out major demonstrations over this issue, estimated to affect 1.2 million people directly, with action scheduled for the second week of September, after the school holidays. The national general elections to be held on 3 October would not influence the ÖGB's determination to push the issue. Other short-term goals are:

  • the conclusion of a collective agreement for temporary agency workers (AT9906155N). ÖGB is also threatening a campaign on this issue, focused especially on the provinces with the greatest shares of temporary agency work (Vienna, Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Styria);
  • severance pay for employees leaving a job of their own accord (AT9904140F);
  • further steps in improving the social security coverage of so-called "minor employment" (AT9711144F); and
  • a return to two years of paid parental leave (AT9905147N), which was effectively shortened to 18 months in mid-1991, and linking parental leave benefit to previous income.

Except for the last point, these are all areas where ÖGB suffered major frustrations in the first seven months of 1999 at the hand of the Austrian Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ), ÖGB's most important counterpart on the employers' side.

More full-time employment

The ÖGB's primary goal is a reduction of permanent overtime working in order to spread to spread the economy's total working time more evenly. Recurrent overtime is estimated to have amounted to 200 million hours in 1998, with another 200 million hours accounted for by occasional overtime. Employees work, on average, 41 hours per week, although most collective agreement set 38.5 hours as the normal working time. Some 39% of men and 25% of women regularly worked overtime in 1997, compared with rates of only 23% and 12% respectively, 10 years earlier. The rates are considerably greater among salary earners than among wage earners. Overtime work is more prevalent in establishments with a works council than in others. About half the overtime hours are compensated with time off, the other half being paid. The total overtime hours are the equivalent in full-time employment terms of about 60,000 jobs. Unions call the situation a "waste of employment", to which is attached a cost of an estimated ATS 14 billion per year in unemployment benefits and lost tax and social security payments. However, it is proving exceedingly difficult to get employees to give up overtime. One suggestion is to make overtime more expensive by adding a tax of ATS 100 per hour, which would serve to recover the ATS 14 billion in costs. The example of France, where employers have since 1995 been receiving a social security contributions rebate if working time reductions result in extra employment (FR9705146F), has also been cited. A further example quoted is that of an Austrian paper manufacturing firm, where management and the works council have devised a working time model that effectively reduces overtime.

There is a clear preference among Austrian unions for reducing working time by collective agreement, first at sector level and later generally, rather than by law. The reduction of recurrent weekly working time is also deemed far more necessary and beneficial than an expansion of holiday entitlements.

ÖGB does not favour an expansion of part-time employment, and especially not of small-scale "minor employment". The latter has been growing inexorably in spite of measures adopted in 1997 to curb it (AT9711144F). By mid-1999, there were about 194,000 employees earning less than ATS 3,889 gross per month, the limit for minor employment, the equivalent of a working time of less than 13 hours per week. This was a growth of 12% over one year earlier. The growth in such employment, originally limited mostly to retail, has spread to cleaning and health services.

Less spurious self-employment

In a controversial development, the 1997 pension reform (AT9711144F), divided the self-employed into four categories, with different social security coverage. The number of allegedly spurious self-employed people is reckoned to be growing but the group is diverse, on average highly trained or educated, and difficult to access for ÖGB. While it is acknowledged that the wheel cannot be turned back, ÖGB would like to contain the phenomenon of such self-employment and be able to set some kind of a framework for remuneration and working conditions.

A collective agreement for journalists concluded in June 1999 is being held up as a positive example. Regularly working freelance journalists will henceforth be covered by the collective agreement for employed journalists. They will be entitled to a minimum monthly income payable 14 times per year (as is customary for wages and salaries in Austria).

Financing social security

ÖGB is apparently beginning to favour a changeover from financing social security out of workers' current income to financing it out of the federal budget. They argue that many more people than just (former) workers benefit from social security, so it would be more equitable if all paid for it through direct and indirect taxes. The idea is explicitly linked with bringing down the overhead costs on wages. It is, in other words, a proposal linked to a desire to stimulate more employment.

A future EIRO record will provide information on theÖGB's idea of introducing income-based accession criteria for countries seeking to join the EU.

Commentary

ÖGB is heading for its 14th federal congress in October 1999, and the leadership wishes to show some determination. ÖGB's demands have been carefully chosen to highlight points of conflict with employers, but they emphasise conflicts over how changes should be made rather than about which changes. WKÖ, over the last couple of years, has consistently resisted any unfavourable changes to the structure of labour costs. Even if the head of WKÖ's social policy department changes in October, the organisation is bound to continue this approach. At the same time, it has shown remarkable willingness to grant wage increases in accordance with productivity gains.

The proposal to shift financing of social security to the state budget seems to come on the heels of a 1990s development, whereby benefits have been extended to a population broader than (former) wage and salary earners. Conceivably, this is ÖGB's way of coming to terms with conservative demands to pay parental benefits to all non-working parents, regardless of whether they were employed during the pregnancy or not (AT9905147N). These demands have engendered an acrimonious debate that has been carrying on throughout 1999. (August Gächter, IHS)

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