EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Germany: Failure of proposal to allow part-time workers claim full-time position

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A proposal to bring in a law allowing part-time workers in Germany to claim a full-time job has failed. The ruling coalition of the Social and Christian Democrats could not agree on the extent of the initiative. The proposal was put forward by the Federal Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, Social Democrat Andrea Nahles.

Background

Social Democrat Andrea Nahles, Federal Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, proposed in 2016 that part-time workers should have the legal right to claim a full-time position from their employer after having worked part-time for a certain period. Current German legislation already guarantees that employees on parental or care leave can return to their former position with the same amount of working time (or an equal position) in the company.

The daily newspaper Die Welt said Ms Nahles’ proposal would apply to firms with 15 or more employees. The United Services Union (ver.di) explained that employees wishing to work full-time would need to have been employed by their company for at least six months and would have to give notice of their desire for more hours at least three months in advance. The proposal said employers would have to grant such a request unless they could prove that no such position was available in their company.

However, at the end of May 2017 the press reported that the proposal had failed and the Federal Chancellery, led by Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel, did not want to discuss it further in the Federal Cabinet.

Background and debate

While all parties agreed that improvements in work–life balance were needed, the proposal failed because the coalition partners – the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – could not agree on the size of firms that should be obliged to comply with such a law.

Ms Nahles had wanted all companies with 15 or more employees to be covered. The CDU, however, said it should apply only to firms with 200 or more employees. Ms Nahles rejected this, saying it would exclude around three million part-time workers. According to the daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Ms Nahles stated that Chancellor Merkel had blocked the way for hundreds of thousands of women to get out of the ‘part-time trap’.

She also accused Ms Merkel of breaking the coalition agreement between the CDU and the SPD (made after the last federal elections in autumn 2013), under which the coalition partners would develop German legislation on part-time work, although the details of any revisions had been left for discussion at a later stage. Ms Nahles sent her proposal to the Federal Chancellery in November 2016, and discussed it with unions and employer associations several times. A heated debate followed, continuing into spring 2017.

Social partner positions

The Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB) supported Ms Nahles’ initiative. At the beginning of April 2017, DGB Chair Reiner Hoffmann and Andrea Nahles made a joint appeal to the coalition to endorse the proposal. Mr Hoffman said the introduction of a legal claim was important and that, in his view, the CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), had blocked the proposal. He said that such a blockage was hard to understand, given companies’ need for skilled labour.

Mr Hoffmann also stated that he could not understand how employers were unwilling to create secure and socially rewarding working conditions for their staff while, at the same time, constantly calling for a secure legal framework to conduct their business.

After the proposal failed, Mr Hoffmann criticised the CDU/CSU for giving in to employers’ wishes, and turning the draft law into a ‘placebo’ by making impractical proposals. The DGB regretted that no consensus was reached.

However, the Baden-Wuerttemberg Employer Association of the Metal and Electrical Industry (Südwestmetall) stressed that Ms Nahles’ proposal had breached the coalition agreement, which had sought to improve working conditions for employees in certain circumstances, such as those taking care of children or family members. It said that her proposal failed not because companies were unwilling, but because of a lack of public infrastructure. It added that more kindergarten places were needed to allow mothers to return to full-time work.

Südwestmetall also said the Federal Minister’s proposal was a ‘massive interference’ in employers’ managerial rights. Small companies would have not been able to deal with such a legal claim and fill vacant positons. Peer-Michael Dick, Chair of Südwestmetall, stated that Ms Nahles had courted confrontation and had wanted to make the claim a campaign issue for the next federal elections.

Research findings

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the share of part-time workers has risen in Germany. As more women than men work part-time, public and academic debate has questioned why women have not reached full-time positions. The latest research by the Cologne Institute of Economic Research (IW) shows that workers in only 2% of German companies found it impossible to prolong working time after taking leave. However, most part-time workers wished to increase their weekly working time only slightly. Data from the 2015 micro census clearly shows that only 12% of women were working part-time because they had not found a full-time position. Some 26% of women who were surveyed by IW said they worked part-time due to family reasons, with another 21% working part-time for other family or personal reasons (such as a care obligation) and 32% choosing not to work full-time for completely different reasons.

Commentary

For the moment, the Federal Labour Minister has failed to introduce her proposal. In addition, public debate is currently largely driven by the next federal elections due at the end of September 2017. The popularity of the SPD had soared after the party nominated Martin Schulz as its candidate for Chancellor, but Chancellor Merkel and the CDU are on the rise again. Given the latest forecasts, the CDU might do so well in the next elections that they will not need the help of the SPD to form a ruling coalition.

Nevertheless, several actors have said they won’t give up on Ms Nahles’ proposal. She has announced she will continue to advocate for the legally guaranteed right for part-time workers to claim a full-time position during the next legislative period.

The DGB’s Reiner Hoffmann has also said he will not to give up on the issue and unions expect the introduction of a law on modern part-time working. As the lower and upper houses of the German Parliament, the Bundesrat and the Bundestag, can also present draft laws, another attempt is not impossible. However, the re-introduction of the topic during the current legislative period seems unlikely.

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