Minister launches debate on working time reduction

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In May 2000, the Belgian Minister of Employment and Labour, Laurette Onkelinx, announced a plan on "modernising work organisation and working time", including measures such as a four-day working week, a 35-hour working week and a system of time credits. Trade unions are unhappy that the Minister is encroaching on matters normally dealt with by social dialogue, while employers regard the contents of the plan as "economic nonsense".

In early May 2000, the Minister of Employment and Labour, Laurette Onkelinx, outlined to the press a plan on modernising work organisation and working time. She proposed a bill containing an array of measures such as a four-day working week, a 35-hour working week and a system of time credits.

The Minister's plan

The main points of the Minister's global strategy to relaunch working time reduction in Belgium are as follows.

Objectives

The global strategy for the modernisation of work organisation and working time pursues the following aims:

  • to improve the quality of life for all employees, at work and outside, thus enabling them to adapt their time management to their life plans. Special attention will be paid to the improvement of working conditions and prevention of newly identified occupational diseases, particularly those related to stress. According to the Minister, the new policy must result in an improvement of the time spent outside work, by means of improving family life, providing new training opportunities and giving incentives to the promotion of "civic-mindedness", particularly in the fields of education, culture or sport;
  • to boost the employment rate through job creation and incentives to maintain existing jobs. The focus will be on employment for women and older workers. Through a broader range of in-company and off-the-job training schemes, an increased use of new technologies, a redistribution of the work available and the improvement of work organisation, the new policy should lead to new recruitment which is able to meet the legitimate expectations of job-seekers; and.
  • to sustain economic growth by achieving a more flexible and more efficient work organisation. The feasibility of using productive equipment more extensively will be examined with a view to reducing the cost per unit produced. Special attention will be given to maintaining companies' competitiveness.

A 35-hour week for all

The objective of the 35-hour working week should be attained for all, but gradually and proceeding in stages. The use of intersectoral collective agreements to this end will be favoured. Periodical evaluations are foreseen to monitor progress. Concretely, it is proposed to bring the collectively agreed statutory working time down to 38 hours a week (from 39) as of 1 January 2001. The initiative should be taken by the social partners within the framework of the national intersectoral agreement, with the partners themselves defining the means of implementation. Should they fail to reach an agreement, the principle and details of implementation would be determined by law.

Voluntary four-day working week

The proposal suggests that all employees who wish to work four days a week should be able to do so without losing any purchasing power. At the collective level, the reduction of working time towards a four-day week would be encouraged by publicly-funded incentives that support such schemes by maintaining workers' purchasing power. At the individual level, the unconditional right to opt a the four-day week would be extended to every worker, as well as the possibility to arrange for a career break by reducing employment to one-fifth of working time.

Time credit available to all, at any chosen moment

Each worker would be entitled to the possibility of building up a "time credit" that could be used for time off for any reason whatsoever, without discrimination between men and women, with a decent income and no loss of employment rights. Workers could use of their time credits in instalments of at least three months, or as a whole, in particular at the end of their career, thus reducing recourse to early retirement schemes. A precondition for benefiting from the time credit scheme would be to have paid social security contributions over a given number of years. The workers' income would then be linked to their pay at the time of taking the leave and limited to a maximum, yet to be determined. The time credit scheme would be financed by social security resources but also by social contributions levied on overtime working.

Reduced working time towards the end of the career

Specific measures and incentives would support the reduction of working time for workers nearing end of their career, such as collective working time reduction based on workers' age. From a given age onward, workers would be entitled to reduce gradually, in regular stages, their working time without loss of pay. This proposal is based on a provision included in a recent collective agreement signed for the not-for-profit sector (BE0003305F). The social partners are invited to explore this alternative within the framework of the intersectoral agreement.

Detailed schedule

The Minister of Employment and Labour proposes to initiate, in the next two months, a round of extensive consultations on the issue of expectations related to the reduction of working time.

First, a number of forums will be organised as platforms for discussion and exchange, under the supervision of scientific experts, on the three following issues:

  • the collective reduction of working time;
  • individual choices as regards working time; and
  • the specific situation of workers nearing the end of their careers.

In parallel, a large-scale survey will be conducted with a view to evaluating citizens' expectations and wishes in this area. Finally, a dialogue will be opened with the social partners. This comprehensive reflection process will result in a general policy memorandum, which will be presented to the government in the last quarter of 2000.

Trade union reactions

Trade unions have deplored the fact that these issues are being discussed outside the context of the social dialogue. Unions do not basically disapprove of the content of the debate on the reduction of working time but object to the form: they insist that the social partners be involved in the implementation of such measures. "Other than the unions, no one can negotiate the 35-hour week with employers, especially if one does not want workers to bear the cost of a reduction of working time", claimed the chair of the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (Centrale Générale des Syndicaux Libéraux de Belgique/Algemene Centrale der Liberale Vakbonden van België,CGSLB/ACLVB). "We are not reluctant to envisage the four-day working week as such, but we disagree on the principle of seeing it as a linear measure. Each sector must be granted the opportunity to adapt implementation to its own characteristics," said Josly Piette of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV).

The next intersectoral agreement is scheduled to be negotiated in autumn 2000 and preliminary negotiations are due to start in a couple of months. "The Minister wants solutions for the last quarter of 2000, while discussions on the 2001-2002 intersectoral agreement will be opened in the autumn. Laurette Onkelinx's bill involves usurping a competence that is supposed to be the province of the social partners," observed the general secretary of CSC/ACV.

Employer reaction

In a joint press release, several employers' organisations - the Federation of Belgian Enterprises (Fédération des Entreprises de Belgique/Verbond van Belgische Ondernemingen, FEB/VBO), the National Christian Self-employed Organisation (Nationale Christelijke Middenstandsvereniging, NCMV) and the Walloon Union of Small Firms and Traders (Union des Classes Moyennes, UCM) - declared that they were surprised by the proposals and methods put forward by the Minister of Employment and Labour. For employers, the reduction of working time (generalisation of the 38-hour week) has nothing to do with employment growth. To bring down statutory working time from 39 to 35 hours a week while maintaining pay levels would cost companies BEF 378.3 billion, which can only be qualified as "economic nonsense", claim the employers.

The Minister's proposals would considerably disrupt work organisation because the hours freed by the working time reduction would have to be filled in order not to affect the production process, state the employers. Compared with other European countries, weekly working time is already rather low in Belgium, while sufficient replacements are not to be found on the labour market. However, employers state that they would agree to enter a discussion with the unions to examine how to achieve a better compatibility between work and family life, provided that workers would be willing to increase their flexibility.

Commentary

The Minister's proposals pertaining to the modernisation of work organisation and working time feature some surprising aspects.

First, as regards content, is a reduction of working hours to 35-hour week an appropriate response to problems related to employment and unemployment in Belgium? According to Évelyne Léonard, a lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain (Université Catholique de Louvain, UCL), there is no reliable empirical evidence yet that a reduction of working hours would result in the reduction of unemployment or the creation of jobs (quoted in an interview in La Libre Belgique on 3 May 2000). Moreover, there are said to be two common myths related to the reduction of working time. The first myth consists in claiming that the hours released will be used for the sake of personal development - such as the family, reading, cinema or the opera. On the contrary, there is a risk that spare time might be used for undeclared work. The second myth is that work can be divided up like a pie. Field studies conducted in enterprises instead demonstrate that a reduction of working time tends to raise workers' productivity. People work less but perform as much as they did before.

Second, and most notable, the way in which Minister Onkelinx developed and presented this bill was unexpected in many respects. A few months before the opening of a new round of intersectoral bargaining, the social partners are now being invited to undertake negotiations within a framework of which several main points have been defined by the Minister. This method is reminiscent of that used for the "Rosetta plan" on youth employment (BE9911307F) in October 1999, when the Minister also by-passed the social dialogue. In spite of this unfortunate experience for social concertation, she is again taking the risk of jeopardising a fundamental agreement by dictating her ambitions as regards the reduction of working time. Once again, it seems that the Minister of Employment and Labour underestimates the role played by the social partners in a field that traditionally belongs to social dialogue. (Catherine Delbar, Institut des Sciences du Travail, UCL).

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