New items appear on bargaining agenda
The social partners in the Austrian manufacturing sector have addressed a broad range of issues in the 1998 bargaining round that are not traditionally included in their remit. The bargaining round has taken an important step towards delegating not only pay decisions to the sectoral and company levels but also aspects of working time, telework and pensions.
In addition to agreeing substantial increases in wages and salaries (AT9810108N), the pay round in the Austrian manufacturing sector which concluded on 19 October 1998 had other noteworthy results. The agenda specifically included many new items not traditionally part of sectoral pay bargaining. The agreements were concluded between the Metals, Mining and Energy Trade Union (Gewerkschaft Metall-Bergbau-Energie, GMBE), the industry section of the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA), and the industry section of the Austrian Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ). They will take effect from 1 November 1998 to run for 12 months, and, as always, cover only industrial employers.
Harmonisation of employment conditions (single status)
As important as pay is the agreement on raising the employment conditions of blue-collar workers ("wage earners") up to those of white-collar workers ("salary earners"). The move towards "single status" is a step towards the legal harmonisation that the trade unions have been seeking for some time (AT9801160N). From 1 November 1998 dismissal dates, illness regulations (covering aspects like wages and benefits and notification periods), paid working time for necessary visits to the doctor or to state offices, and periods before wage claims expire will be harmonised. Dismissal notice periods were harmonised in 1997. Negotiators are also committed to the conclusion of an agreement before the end of April 1999 on harmonising regulations governing the payment of wages and salaries by 1 January 2000. Employers claim that this harmonisation amounts to a further 0.25% rise in wage costs. The unions maintain that the effective increase is only 0.1%.
Working time remains a contentious point. An agreement in the paper-making industry could not be concluded on 19 October because the GPA wanted to include the 36-hour working week - currently established in a number of works agreements (between employers and works councils) for fully continuous shift production - in the sectoral agreement. This was in an attempt to forestall the cancellation of certain works agreements after a number of Austrian paper manufacturers had changed ownership. Paper making would be only the third industry, after printing and mineral oils, to reach this goal. However, in the negotiations leading up to the 19 October agreement, the intention was announced to tackle the working time issue in an integrated fashion. This was to include aspects like the reduction of overtime, the promotion of part-time employment and defining the status of hours worked between the agreed weekly maximum and the legal maximum. Paper making and the chemicals industry were singled out as the ones which would open talks on this project. In the two industries mentioned above that have already cut weekly working time (printing and mineral oils), the 36-hour week applies to both wage and salary earners. The same is true of the works agreements in paper making and will eventually be true of the entire sectoral agreement.
Austria's National Action Plan (NAP) on employment - in response to the EU Employment Guidelines for 1998 (EU9805107N) - made training leave of up to one year available for anybody employed during the previous three years (AT9802164F). The social partners were made responsible for setting the precise rules through collective agreements. An agreement has now been concluded for the metalworking sector and for white-collar workers in other manufacturing industries. Training leave should be used, it states, for measures compatible with enterprise goals and the personal interests of employees. The details are left to works agreements. The manufacturing agreement should be interpreted primarily as a show of support for the idea of training leave.
In an oblique response to a recent dispute over the relevant legislation, the manufacturing social partners have welcomed the use of training leave to facilitate reintegration back into work after parental leave. It had recently been pointed out by the women's organisation of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) that parental leave is taken in most cases while the employment relationship remains formally intact. Time taken off on parental leave therefore counts as employment and it is legally possible to go directly from parental leave to training leave. It is thought that the civil servants drafting the legislation and the legislators passing it were not aware of this. A number of commentators across the political spectrum had doubted the legitimacy of training leave following on from parental leave.
For all white-collar workers in metalworking, chemicals, glass, paper processing, food, stone and ceramics, it was agreed to introduce a few general regulations on teleworking and to leave the remainder to works agreements. General regulations include absolutely voluntary participation, continued integration with the company workforce and access to company training. The works agreements will have to settle at least four issues. These are:
- the division of work between company premises and other locations;
- the responsibility for, and ownership of, equipment;
- working time - for example, the extent to which commuting between company premises and other places of work counts as working time; and
- questions of liability for damage to equipment.
The agreement follows the 1997 sectoral agreement concluded by GMBE and WKÖ for blue-collar workers in the mineral oils industry (AT9707123F), which deals with precisely these same issues.
Employment and competitiveness
A joint resolution was addressed to the government requesting specific measures to reduce the tax burden on wages and to increase incentives for investment in research, development and training in an effort to combat unemployment and to raise competitiveness.
The time was not considered ripe for setting aside a share of the wage increases for the creation of pension funds. The vehicle to be used in future years is the "distribution option", which allows for part of pay increases agreed at sector level to be distributed at company level (AT9809103F). For the time being taxation remains an obstacle. The social partners have appealed to the government to amend the law.
The social partners at sectoral level have gone much further than they used to in addressing issues of general importance. Only a few years ago, most of these issues would have been addressed exclusively at a national and legislative level. Obviously, the Austrian economy is going through a rapid process of internationalisation making national legal regulation less viable and forcing the social partners to settle issues of social policy (such as working time and pensions) at the sectoral level. It is not unlikely that matters of employment and competitiveness will soon go the same way.
This process, which might provisionally be called "denationalisation" (that is, decentralisation away from nationwide levels of regulation), has also attained an important dimension of "desectoralisation". A tendency to delegate more and more to works agreements has been discernible for a while but is now clearly picking up momentum. This places a growing burden on the negotiating skills and time budgets of works councils, especially their chairs. It is, in some respects, a way of limiting progress to larger companies because the smaller ones either have no works council or no works councillors on paid leave. Since it is hard to keep track of works agreements, it is also a way of increasing uncertainty over the degree to which new measures are being implemented in the economy. The social partners will in future be less well informed on the state of industrial relations on the shop floor than they were. In turn, this ought to open up the field of industrial relations to more research activity, but it is unlikely that the required funds will be made available in the near future. (August Gächter, IHS)