AMI International, Austria: flexible working practices
AMI International, formerly Agrolinz Melamin, is a chemicals company that produces melamine and fertiliser. It is the second largest melamine producer in the world. Its headquarters and main factory are situated in Linz, northern Austria, and it has other factories in Italy and Germany. AMI is a privately owned company.
In the early 1980s, the Austrian government privatised Chemie Linz. Subsequently, in the late 1980s, OMV (the leading oil and gas group in central Europe) acquired and reorganised one of Chemie Linz’s divisions – Agrolinz Melamin. The new owner restructured the technological processes of the company and focused production on melamine and fertilisers. In the mid 1990s, the enterprise became profitable again.
The restructuring resulted in a reduction of the workforce to around 1,000 employees by 1995, of whom around 700 were production workers with an average age of 43 years. By 2005, the workforce was further reduced to 832 employees.
The policy of human resources (HR) was to select the best workers and to improve their productivity, while easing older workers into retirement. It wanted to reduce the workforce through early retirement and limited recruitment, rather than to create sustainable work processes and keep employees at work for longer. The focus on workforce reduction, which was done with the agreement and cooperation of the works council, seemed to be the best way of guaranteeing the company’s economic survival.
The original initiative
The company wanted to improve its HR management policy and also to adapt its work practices to take into account employees’ needs. In 1997, it introduced the ‘productive ageing programme’ – an initiative that reviewed working conditions for shift workers in the production department. The programme consisted of the following features:
- switch from a headcount to a full-time equivalent (FTE) system with unchanged pay;
- a reformed shift schedule;
- new quality standards in occupational health;
- health training for shift workers;
- ergonomic measures in production;
- training of health facilitators.
By changing to an FTE system, this allowed the company to hire more workers and to design a new shift work schedule, which consisted of:
- five shift teams;
- weekly working time reduced to 34 hours;
- night work and night shifts reduced from eight shifts per month to six shifts per month;
- shift breaks of three to four days instead of two days;
- every other weekend off;
- an eight-hour training shift every fifth week.
In October 2001, the new shift schedule – which required 16 extra workers and a 5% wage reduction – was implemented in the company’s fertiliser division for 92 workers.
The programme increased employees’ job satisfaction and enhanced their ability to work. Rates of absenteeism due to sickness declined and fewer workers considered early retirement. Most workers (84%) voted in favour of continuing the schedule and in 2002, the company’s two other divisions adopted the new model. Management viewed the initiative as a business success and the trade union referred to it as a model policy for an ageing workforce.
Good practice today
The company continued to implement its productive ageing programme. In 2004, it introduced new ergonomic and health promotion measures, which included reconstruction of the central control room in the fertiliser division and equipping it to have optimum light, climatic conditions and visual displays. The new facility included a fully equipped fitness centre that workers could access around the clock. The other control rooms were also renovated and refitted.
The health promotion programme operates at several levels:
- Night-shift workers are specially trained to cope with stress, to manage sleep and to improve mental alertness at night. These and other behavioural measures aim to improve workers’ ability to cope with shift work and to rest properly after night shifts.
- The company designed a physical fitness training programme that includes gymnastics and running. In 2003, it initiated a city marathon in which hundreds of production workers participated; regular running is now part of the company culture.
- A new canteen serves food that is recommended by nutritionists to contribute to health and ability to work.
- Other aspects of the workplace, including work clothes, were redesigned to be more attractive.
- Agrolinz to AMI International and redesigning the corporate image also helped to improve the workplace.
The company acknowledges the success of the productive ageing programme and plans to maintain the changes that were made in the production department. However, the reorganisation and ownership changes have been unsettling and have increased stress levels, as well as leading to a perceived deterioration in the working environment. Although workers did enjoy the positive effects of the shift reform by using the increased time off to enhance their private lives, they considered their working life as less attractive. The health measures were unable to improve this perception.
Nevertheless, an evaluation of the shift reform programme, in early 2004, shows how the working lives of older production workers did improve:
- Workers considered that their quality of life and work–life balance had significantly improved, although satisfaction with these aspects decreased slightly since January 2003. They noted that significant improvements were still needed in areas relating to friends, leisure time, culture and sport.
- Ability to work improved by 20%, particularly among those aged 50 years and over.
- Sleep quality and recovery from night shifts improved; sleep problems and the subjectively perceived burden of night shifts decreased significantly.
- The proportion of workers who perceived their work to be meaningful doubled from 32% to 73% by January 2003, but dropped again to 31% by the end of 2004. However, in the same period, the proportion of workers who perceived their private life as being more meaningful rose from 27% to 51%.
- Although the 2004 survey shows that workers are as likely to consider quitting the job or taking early retirement as they did before the reforms, almost no workers were reported as having done so in the January 2003 survey.
- The level of absence due to sickness decreased, although more workers are leaving.
Overall, the productive ageing programme is regarded as being successful, and both the employees and the works council continue to support the initiative.
DI Kurt Ketscher, Former CEO in retirement, Tel: 0043-1-732-6914-0
Christian Kempinger, Chairman of the works council, Tel: 0043-1-732-6914-0
Dr Manfred Lindorfer, Head of Worklab Occupational Health Services, Tel: 0043-1-732-6914-2222
The evaluation reports can be downloaded from: www.ibg.co.at
FTE is a way of looking at the workforce in terms of its relative strength. Instead of just counting the ‘number’ of people employed (as for headcount), FTE accounts for each employee’s ordinary work hours expressed as a proportion of the full-time load.