On-call jobs rejected by Electrolux-Zanussi workers

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In June 2000, an agreement at Electrolux Zanussi sought to introduce "on-call jobs" for the first time in Italy. The agreement was negotiated by the three metalworking sector trade unions, Fiom-Cgil, Fim-Cisl and Uil-Uilm, and approved by the company's Rsu worker representative bodies. However, the deal was rejected in a workforce referendum in July, and Fiom-Cgil now opposes the agreement. As well as causing divisions among the unions, the on-call jobs initiative has also prompted debate among labour law experts.

Electrolux Zanussi, the household electrical appliance manufacturer, employs some 13,200 workers in Italy, in plants located in five northern regions. The company has taken a leading role in the introduction of innovations in the Italian industrial relations system (IT9803154N and IT9712141N) in recent years, thanks to a participatory approach fostered by Mario Castro, the company's human resources and industrial relations manager, and by the three metalworkers' federations affiliated to the main trade union confederations Fiom-Cgil, Fim-Cisl and Uil-Uilm. Most recently, during negotiations over the renewal of the supplementary company collective agreement, the firm proposed introducing a new form of employment - the so-called "on-call job" (lavoro a chiamata).

The on-call jobs scheme was included in a draft agreement concluded by the company and the three union federations on 12 June 2000. The deal was discussed on 20 June by all the group's Rsu workplace employee representative bodies. In the most recent Rsu elections Fiom-Cgil received 46.4% of the vote, Fim-Cisl 30.7%, and Uilm-Uil 19.6%. The Rsus approved the agreement with 80 votes in favour, 58 against and one abstention. However, on 18-19 July, in a workforce referendum on the agreement, in which 80% of the workers at the Italian plants took part, the agreement was rejected by 70% of those voting.

On-call jobs

The most innovative aspect of the agreement, and that which has created divisions among the trade unions and engendered a debate among labour law experts, is the introduction of on-call jobs - ie a group of workers available to be called on in certain circumstances, but who are not paid at other times. This provision allows Electrolux Zanussi companies to hire workers on special open-ended contracts in order to: execute "non-programmable" tasks, in which case the workers can be called on for no fewer than 15 working days; deal with intense periods of production or unexpected delays in production, in which case the workers can be called on for no fewer than five working days; or substitute for absent workers, in which case the workers can be called on for no fewer than three working days. The workers hired on the new contracts must be employed for at least 500 hours per year. They can be called on to work if they are given written notice, at least 72 hours before the start of the work, which must last for at least eight hours per day. In these circumstances, the workers cannot refuse the work unless there is a serious hindrance (which can include a part-time contract that the worker has with another company). If the company calls on the worker less than 72 hours before the work starts, or if the daily working time involved is below eight hours, the worker is able to decide whether or not to accept on a voluntary basis.

During periods of inactivity, the workers are considered, in law and in terms of their employment contract, as being on unpaid leave. This means that the workers are not paid and that the company does not pay social security contributions for them during these periods.

The workers who choose this kind of employment relationship will have access to training, being able to choose among a series of training courses on different subjects, even if these are not related to their occupation (information technology, foreign languages, etc). The company will have to guarantee at least 180 hours of training over a three-year period (60 hours per year). Workers will receive ITL 5,000 for each hour of attendance on courses. Training courses can take place both inside and outside the company and participation will be certified.

Other aspects of the agreement

The proposed agreement is very innovative in a number of areas other than on-call jobs. The provisions include the following.

  • The company must provide new specific information to the company's European Works Council (EWC), within which an "observatory on cyclical trends and on strategic developments" has been established. This observatory will meet after each EWC steering committee meeting, and will include national and local trade union organisations, together with the management of the company's plants in the various European countries. This observatory will deal with the strategic decisions of the various business units, in particular as regards investment and production policies, innovations in processes and products and trade and industrial policies, in relation to the productive specialisation of the different plants. The observatory can also organise meetings with experts on economic and financial issues related to the household electrical appliance sector.
  • A mandatory preventive procedure is established for cases where companies belonging to the group, or parts of its activities, are sold off. Workers' representatives must be informed about the employment, economic, managerial and strategic consequences of such decisions. Furthermore, workers must be informed about the organisational structure and pay and conditions which will be applied to them when they are transferred to other companies. Electrolux Zanussi is also obliged to supply all necessary information concerning the company which will buy the activities or company concerned. This communication procedure can be followed, on the demand of the trade union organizations, by negotiations.
  • The agreement provides for new anti-discriminatory procedures, which besides combating racial, religious and political forms of discrimination also takes into account psychological forms of discrimination, known as "mobbing".
  • A personal computer linked to the company's central communication system will be installed in the office of each Rsu, allowing trade union representatives to communicate via e-mail with trade union organisations, other company Rsus and management.
  • A "subsidiarity" principle is introduced, whereby the company bargaining parties at national level may, when necessary, entrust Rsus with negotiations on issues which are usually the responsibility of the national level.
  • Workers will receive an average variable pay increase of ITL 1.5 million per year

Legal problems

On-call jobs are defined, in legal terms, as "a special part-time contract with a programmed expansion" (""contratto speciale a tempo parziale ad espansione programmata). The legal basis of this new kind of employment relationship lies in it being considered as a part-time contract, thus bringing it within the scope of legislative decree 61 of 25 February 2000, which transposed EU Directive (97/81/EC) on part-time work (IT0002261F).

The fundamental difference between a traditional part-time employment contract and the on-call job lies in the definition of the amount of work to be performed. With the former type of contract, the worker is called on to work according to a fixed annual calendar, with daily minimum and maximum hours set by law. With the on-call job contract, as specified by Electrolux Zanussi, these daily limits are regarded as not being binding because the social partners have preferred to set a minimum number of hours to be worked on an annual basis (500 hours), along with minimum notice periods for being called in to work. Whether or not it is legitimate for such regulations negotiated by the social partners to modify the law has been the subject of debate among legal experts. Many academics have taken part in the discussion and expressed their opinions, among the most eminent being Marco Biagi of the University of Modena.

Professor Biagi stated in an article published in Il Sole 24 Ore, the newspaper of the Confindustria employers' confederation, that even if he is in favour of the Electrolux Zanussi initiative, he believes that the new type of contract clashes with the part-time work legislation in force. This is because the relevant decree seeks to define in detail the use of part-time work and does not allow the social partners to modify its provisions on the basis of concrete needs. Professor Biagi uses the Electrolux Zanussi case as the grounds for demanding a modification of the legislative decree to allow the social partners to adapt part-time employment relationships to concrete situations. He believes that Italian legislators have gone against the spirit of the EU Directive and issued a decree reinterpreting the Directive's provisions according to a critical line supported, at the time of its transposition, by Confindustria and Cisl.

Massimo Roccella, a consultant to the Minister of Labour, has voiced a more critical opinion of the Electrolux Zanussi initiative (in the L'Unità newspaper on 17 June 2000), with the aim of defending the legislative decree. He believes that the agreement is much too flexible, leaving it to the company to decide when and for how long a job should be carried out. Professor Roccella stated that Zanussi's needs could be met by using temporary work. He described the agreement as introducing a "disposable" form of employment.

Trade union divisions

The Electrolux Zanussi agreement had also divided trade unions. Fiom-Cgil, despite internal divisions among its Rsu representatives, has now decided to oppose the agreement, while Fim-Cisl and Uilm-Uil have decided to support it. Fim-Cisl and Uilm-Uil argued that the agreement may represent, for many young people, a new job opportunity which combines a part-time job, the right to be hired on an open-ended contract and an individual right to training, thus improving their position on the labour market. These unions have underlined the value of the open-ended relationship with the company provided by the new contract.

The "no" vote in the workforce referendum has prevented the agreement's application, leaving Zanussi workers without a supplementary company agreement. Antonio Regazzi, the general secretary of Uil-Uilm, commented: "we acknowledge the will of the workers and we need to respect it: there is no longer an agreement." Mr Regazzi believes that it is now necessary to start "a calm and rational discussion which will have to involve all the main actors". Giorgio Caprioli, the general secretary of Fim-Cisl, said that "the result is very clear. What happened marks a halt on the route of bargaining innovation and in the effort to improve the right to training for young people". Fiom-Cgil representatives have expressed their satisfaction with the outcome, and believe that it is now time to resume negotiations to modify the contents of the agreement.

Commentary

Once again, in the Electrolux Zanussi case trade unions have been divided over the issue of the management of flexibility and the relationship between the law and bargaining. This is mainly due to cultural divisions between the unions and to differing visions of the role of trade unions, which have surfaced more and more frequently (IT9912137F). Other recent examples of these differences have related to an employment pact in Milan (IT0003264N), Bologna's municipal budget (IT9912136N) and the reorganisation of Rome's environmental services (IT9907124N).

The divisions between trade unions have also been accentuated by the attitude of a part of the political majority which at present supports the government. The Minister of Labour, Cesare Salvi, represents an approach which entrusts law with the regulation of labour issues, thus limiting the role of social partners. This approach is based on the idea that the differences between employers and workers must be reduced by legislative interventions affirming general rights, rather than by the negotiations among the partners.

These issues will be an important item on the agenda of the intersectoral negotiations in autumn 2000, which will review the bargaining system and labour market policies. In these talks, the strategic and cultural divergences among the trade union organisations will probably surface once again. These obstacles will make it very difficult for the negotiations to reach a positive conclusion. (Domenico Paparella, CESOS)

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