Proposal for gradual reduction in working time for shift work

In October 2008, an expert committee set up by the Norwegian government put forward its proposal for the introduction of a statutory scheme providing for a gradual reduction in working hours in relation to shift work carried out at night time and on Sundays. The proposal aims to promote equality, in terms of weekly working hours, between shift work in the female-dominated healthcare sector and similar working time arrangements in the male-dominated manufacturing sector.

Committee proposes changes to rules on shift work

An expert committee set up by the Norwegian government in November 2007, under the leadership of Professor Steinar Holden, has explored various issues relating to equality between shift and rotation work. It submitted its recommendations to the government in October 2008 (Skift og turnus – gradvis kompensasjon for ubekvem arbeidstid (in Norwegian)). The committee was established against the backdrop of a lengthy debate about gender equality in relation to working time schemes involving three-shift rotation work and continuous shift work (NO0711029I).

The committee proposes an entirely new model for calculating working hours for employees working three shifts. The purpose of this change is to ensure equal treatment between three-shift work or ‘rota work’ (‘turnusarbeid’) and continuous shift work arrangements. The proposal will, if it is adopted, primarily affect workers who are required to undertake shift arrangements in the healthcare sector, but it will also have an effect on other groups subject to such shift or rotation work arrangements.

Current situation regarding shift and rotation work

Continuous shift work is used when workforce needs are constant during all shifts. It is characterised by permanent work teams that, on the basis of specific predefined intervals, change or shift their work pattern between daytime, evening and night time.

Rotation shift work is used when workforce needs vary over the course of the day. In this case, employees are not part of a permanent work team, and the number of workers on the job will vary throughout the day. Women constitute a large majority of employees working on three-shift rotation arrangements, which is often the case in the healthcare sector, while men comprise the majority of those working continuous shifts.

Workers subject to round-the-clock or continuous shift arrangements currently enjoy an agreement-based weekly working time of 33.6 hours, while workers on three-shift rotation have an agreement-based weekly working time of 35.5 hours. The Working Environment Act (2.09Mb PDF) (Arbeidsmiljøloven) provides for a weekly working time of 36 and 38 hours, respectively, for the same two types of working arrangements.

Views of social partners

Trade unions with a predominantly female membership, including the Norwegian Nurses Organisation (Norsk Sykepleierforbund, NSF), have long argued that the working time of three-shift rotation schemes involving a certain degree of night, evening and Sunday work should be set at 33.6 hours a week. This demand has been put forward in an effort to improve equality between female and male-dominated sectors. Several attempts to reach agreement on revised working time arrangements for shift rotation work have been unsuccessful, most recently when a joint social partner committee appointed in the autumn of 2005 failed to reach a common consensus.

On the other hand, the employee organisations argued in favour of a model where certain types of three-shift rotation schemes would be allocated the same weekly working hours as workers on continuous shifts. Their main argument related to the fact that these working times were not comparable as the number of hours worked at night and on Sundays differed. In addition, the employers argued that such a scheme as that proposed by the trade unions would be too costly and would also have a spill-over effect to other groups.

The social partner committee therefore ended its work without drawing any conclusions. This was the reason for the government’s decision to establish the expert committee in November 2007.

Content of expert committee’s proposal

The expert committee’s proposal envisions a model in which workers who are on three-shift or rotation schemes are given a gradual reduction in normal working hours, calculated on the basis of the number of hours worked during night time or on Sundays. Thus, the proposal takes into account the fact that significant variations exist between shift workers with regard to how many nights or Sundays they work during the rotation period. Therefore, it assumes that it is those workers with the heaviest workload, in terms of night and Sunday work, who should be given priority regarding reduced working time. This can be achieved by adding 15 minutes to each hour worked at night time, such that one hour of night work corresponds to one hour 15 minutes of normal working time, and 10 minutes to every hour worked on a Sunday, such that one hour of Sunday work corresponds to one hour 10 minutes of normal working time. Workers who carry out a significant part of their work during unsocial working hours – namely, at night time or on Sundays – will see a greater reduction in the number of hours worked than those who are subject to fewer shifts during nights or on Sundays. The proposed model would provide for an average weekly working time of 33.6 hours, which currently applies to workers employed on continuous shift work schemes in the manufacturing sector.

The committee has estimated that the new system will affect about 51,000 man-years – a man-year refers to the amount of work performed by an average worker during a year, including full-time as well as part-time workers. Some manufacturing workers will see a minor reduction in their working time, which will also be the case for some groups in the public sector. A majority of those who will see their working hours reduced, however, are workers in public hospitals who are subject to three-shift rotation schemes. On average, these workers will see their weekly working hours reduced by half an hour.

The costs of the legal changes, such as additional labour costs, will amount to an estimated NOK 430 million (about €48 million as at 3 December 2008). The reform is estimated to require about 770 new man-years.

The proposal will be sent out for discussion among the affected parties. So far, the social partners have not adopted a final position on the proposal.

Kristine Nergaard, Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science

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