Decentralised regulation of women's night work

In early 1998, the social partners in Austria's metalworking sector are in the throes of negotiating a first collective agreement on women's night work which will open the way for plant-level agreements. As a result, companies will be able to employ women on night duty well before gender-neutral legal regulations come into force in 2001. The agreement, when concluded, will be a further step away from detailed national regulation towards greater autonomy for local agents in framing industrial relations.

Legal change

The 1969 Night Work of Women Act (Frauen-Nachtarbeitsgesetz, FrNArbG) originally ruled out the employment of women over an 11-hour period including that from 20.00 to 06.00. The bulk of the law comprised detailed exemptions and exceptions. When Austria acceded to the European Economic Area on 1 January 1994 the law was amended to permit night work indiscriminately from the year 2001. Driven by employment concerns, new legislation was enacted in late 1997 permitting the social partners to conclude collective agreements on the night-time employment of women from 1 January 1998 provided that the right to return to a daytime occupation in case of a proven health hazard were included along with measures to compensate for the burdens of night work or to alleviate them. Special consideration has to be given to any necessary care of children up to the age of 12 (AT9711148N). Collective agreements may empower plant-level agreements to make exceptions to the ban on night work.

Demand for night work

Several enterprises intend to employ women on night shifts. In fact, a plant belonging to TRW, the car component multinational, announced that it would begin the scheme on 9 February 1998 even if the necessary collective and plant agreements were not in place. AT&S, an Austrian circuit-board manufacturer, has premised an ATS 500 million investment decision and the creation of 150 jobs on an agreement at plant level to allow women to work at night. Both these companies belong to the metalworking sector. Several enterprises in the food industry expressed a desire to employ women on night shifts while the law was under debate in November 1997. Here nothing more has happened since but it is expected that talks on a collective agreement will take place before the end of March 1998.

Dispute over content

As outlined above, the mandatory requirements on collective agreements on women's night work are few. However, the provisions in the law resulted from a complex process involving compromise not merely between the Austrian Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) and the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) as the main social partners, but also: between the social partners and the Government; within the Government; and within the ÖGB between the women's section and the federation presidency. The women's section, as early as May 1995, had sent a resolution to the WKÖ, the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs (Bundesministerium für Arbeit, Gesundheit und Soziales, BMAGS) and the Ministry of Women's Affairs (Frauenministerium) containing a detailed list of demands and suggestions. The most important of these was a system of compensation for night work in the form of additional time off in lieu to be taken over the subsequent 13 weeks. This ranged from 10% to 33% of the hours worked between 20.00 and 06.00, depending on the time of night at which work was to be done. Other key demands were transport to and from work, hot food, breaks and the right to switch to daytime work. There was no demand on childcare because the right to daytime work was regarded as the better substitute. In the end the law contained very little of all this. The overall compromise, reached in November 1996, was to avoid dispute over the exact details and cost of the regulations at parliamentary level and to refer them down to national collective agreements and from there to plant-level agreements.

Since February 1998, the metalworking sector has been the main focus in the resolution of this issue, and the main parties have been the Union of Metal, Mining and Energy Workers (Gewerkschaft Metall-Bergbau-Energie, GMBE) and the WKÖ's social policy division. The initiative will pass to the respective metalworking industry collective agreement negotiating teams as soon as the talks on a collective agreement start. A new chair for the WKÖ's negotiating team was appointed in late 1997. Due to concerns over employment levels, the GMBE has been urging negotiations. An official date is not known at the time of writing in February 1998, but a start (and possibly a conclusion) may be only days away.

As at the legislative level, the dispute is over the scope and scale of the agreement. The WKÖ, on the basis of the AT&S precedent - where the works council managed to negotiate a 10% premium on hours worked between 22.00 and 06.00 to be paid either in the form of time off in lieu or in cash and a half-hour paid break - has offered to conclude collective agreements between the national social partners for individual companies on the basis of plant-level agreements concluded in the relevant sector. The GMBE, at the time of writing, leans towards limiting the scope of the collective agreement to the legal requirements, while insisting that it cover the entire wage-earning workforce in the metalworking sector. Remaining issues, especially pay, may be left to plant-level agreements. The GMBE's reasoning is that in enterprises where pay is well above the minimum there may be less need for the employees to receive an additional premium.

Commentary

This issue has at least two important aspects. One is the way in which concerns over equal opportunities, employment and social policy are pitched against one another. If it were merely a question of social policy and equal opportunities, as it first seemed when women's night work appeared on the agenda in Austria, then the retreat from the ban on women's night work would have been very slow, as evidenced by the 2001 deadline. However, once employment or investment concerns enter the scene, the process picks up momentum. Even so, and this leads to the second aspect, the reformulation of protective measures then becomes a very sensitive and conflictual undertaking. The national social partners found themselves unable to agree the issue centrally and referred it down to company and plant level. This devolution is part of a growing trend to cast national regulations as no more than broad frameworks leaving much space for specific agreements at the most local level. No doubt this process will eventually lead to greater differences between larger and smaller enterprises within each industry, and between plants with a works council and those without one. Consequently, the premium on not having a works council will grow for employers, which - one might expect - would normally make them less willing to have one. (August Gächter. IHS)

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