Committee proposes five more days of leave

The report of Sweden's governmental working time committee, issued in June 2002, calls for new legislation to give all workers an additional five days of leave per year, to be introduced in stages by 2007. It also proposes measures to give workers more influence over their working time. The report has generally been welcomed by trade unions but rejected by employers.

In late 2000, the Swedish government set up a governmental working time committee (Kommittén för nya arbetstids- och semesterregler, KNAS), with social partner involvement, to examine the entire system of legislation on working time and leave and make proposals for reform (SE0101176N). The committee - chaired by Hans Karlsson, a former leading figure in the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (Landsorganisationen, LO) - issued its report (SOU 2002:58) on 18 June 2002. The main proposals for new statutory working time rules are as follows:

  • all workers should be entitled to five additional days of flexible paid leave per year, introduced by new legislation on flexible leave. Two extra days off per year should be introduced in 2004, followed by one day extra each year up to 2007;
  • of the current five statutory weeks of annual leave, it should be possible for one week to be taken flexibly in units of one or more hours or days.
  • the new five days of flexible leave, plus the one week of the current five-week annual entitlement which could be taken flexibly, could be saved in a 'time bank', with a maximum saving of 10 days or 80 hours per year. The time bank could contain a maximum of 400 hours;
  • the existing Working Hours Act (Arbetstidslagen, SFS 1982:673) should be adjusted to bring into in line with the 1993 EU working time Directive (93/104/EC). Specific rules should be added to guarantee an 11-hour rest period every 24 hours and a 48-hour limit on weekly working time over a reference period of four months. Furthermore, normal hours of work for night workers should not exceed eight hours. The new rules could be varied by collective agreement within the limits of the Directive;
  • to enhance the rights of individual employees, employers should have a duty to consider the employees' wishes about the length and allocation of their working time. The employer should inform employees of any changes to their working time four weeks in advance, instead of the two weeks currently laid down in the Working Hours Act; and
  • the five days of additional flexible leave, plus the one week of the current five-week annual leave entitlement which could be taken flexibly, should be taken as time off and not converted into cash instead. The committee states that will strengthen employees' influence over their own working time and spare time. Only in cases of 'disturbance to production' (ie problems that cannot be solved in any other reasonable way) could an employer prevent employees taking planned leave - and the burden of proof would be on the employer if this was challenged.

Enhancing employees' influence

The main purpose of the proposed legislation - in line with the committee's terms of reference - is to strengthen employees' influence over their own working time through the possibility to take time off at hours suiting their individual choices. Thus, it would, for example be possible to use the new flexible leave to reduce daily working hours over a special period, or to take half or full days off. The pay during time off would be the same as if the employee had been working. The new law would apply to all workers, except seasonal workers, trainees and workers employed for less than one month. .

The committee was briefed to examine different methods of cutting working time. It looked mainly at: a reduction in weekly working time; and five days of additional leave per year. The committee's report states that there are no important qualitative differences between the two methods in terms of their effects on health, equality, work organisation etc. However, a cut in working time, whatever method is used, has economic consequences, which the committee assessed according to certain models (SE0204103F). Demographic developments are seen as important, an increasing labour shortage is expected, especially in the public sector. In the light of future economic developments, the committee prefers a relatively limited decrease in working time. Rather than reducing the current (statutory) weekly working time of 40 hours by one hour, it has chosen the flexible leave alternative. This alternative gives individual employees greater possibilities to exert influence over their working time, states the committee.

Other aspects of working time reduction

Various aspects of a working time reduction have been discussed intensively in Sweden in recent years, (SE0011173F and SE0004139F). Without reiterating these discussions, two aspects that have not attracted so much attention are worth mentioning here. In early June 2002 the Ministry for Industry, Employment and Communications (Näringsdepartementet) published a document on the equality and health aspects of a working time cut (Arbetstiden - livets gränser, SOU 2002:49). In Sweden, there are differing opinions as to whether a working time cut would be favorable in terms of addressing gender equality gaps and health problems at work. According to the author, Joa Bergold, an official at the Swedish Confederation of Salaried Employees (Tjänstemännens Centralorganisation, TCO) and secretary to the working time committee, the issue of employees controlling their own working time is crucial from both the equality and health perspectives. Working hours may in many ways be described as 'limits of life', creating different conditions for different individuals in society.

However, according to the report, a cut in working time may not be a clear solution for equality and health problems in society and working life. A more equal society demands redistribution between men and women of paid work and the unpaid housework. A working time reform may create the prerequisites for such a redistribution, but there would possibly be a need for other incentives as well. As to the health perspective, the author states that positive connections between working time cuts and medical health have not been proved. On the other hand, a working time reform providing the possibility for people to influence their own working time may create the conditions for increased 'social well-being'.

Reactions

The reaction to the committee's report from the private sector employers represented by the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise (Svenskt Näringsliv) was immediate and harsh. They reject a legal resolution of the working time issue on several grounds. The main argument is that working time issues should be dealt with in collective agreements, rather than legislation (in line with the 'traditional' Swedish model of industrial relations). The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise argues that:

  • there are already about 40 collective agreements which demonstrate that optional agreements can resolve the issue of working time flexibility and freedom of choice;
  • legislative working time reductions cut growth and cost a lot of money. The organisation estimates that the total loss to the economy from the proposed measures would amount to SEK 40 billion. This would mean, for example, a cut of about 20,000 full-time jobs in the public sector, schools and hospitals;
  • there are already 14 items of legislation on various kinds of leave in Sweden. A 15th act would increase the burden of regulations on all enterprises, especially small ones. The working time committee proposes new legislation that will further complicate life for all smaller entrepreneurs, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise stated at a press conference on the same day that the committee proposal was presented; and
  • there will be a growing need for labour in future while, according to the organisation's chief economist, Stefan Fölster, many people want to work more than they do today. However they may not be allowed to do so if the proposed rules are introduced. From the employers' point of view, the problem of a statutory cut in working time is that freedom of choice will in fact be reduced, rather than increased.

According to the TCO white-collar union confederation, Swedish families need fewer rather than more working hours. It is necessary for public health that working hours decrease and that families have better opportunities to decide over their working time, for the sake of their children and other non-work activities. Overall, TCO and LO welcome the committee's proposals with only one main objection. Both confederations want the government's bill based on the committee's report to strengthen the proposed rule about employers' possibilities to prevent planned leave (see above), providing that 'very strong' reasons should be required for an employer to prevent employees taking leave that has been announced in due time.

Commentary

The working time reduction issue has been on the Swedish public, political and trade union agenda for more than 10 years, through a succession of new committees, proposals and governments. The discussion initially dealt with a possible general working time cut from 40 hours to 35 hours a week (as in France), either through compulsory legislation, through collective agreements (allowing for local agreements on the issue), or through several other models. In recent years, the statutory approach to working time reduction has come to the fore. Even the three main trade union confederations - LO, TCO and the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Sveriges Akademikers Centralorganisation, SACO) - stated in 2001 and again in 2002 that they would prefer legislation introducing five more days of leave, the approach now taken by the working time committee.

With regard to the economic impact of the proposed reform, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise has (as noted above) estimated the resulting cost of reduced economic growth as at least SEK 40 billion. The Institute for Economical Research (Konjunkturinstitutet) has produced an even higher figure (SE0204103F), stating that important public services such as schools, healthcare, and care for older people, will suffer from a general working time cut, as will private consumption. However, the working time committee does not deny that reducing working time has its costs. As Hans Karlsson, the committee chair, stated at a press conference on 18 June 2002, the proposed flexible leave will not be free: a choice has to be made between a cut in working time, or an increase in consumption and improvements in sickness insurance.

It is the task of the government to examine the economic considerations and conduct political discussions. Mona Sahlin, the minister is responsible for labour legislation, has already promised a bill based on the committee's report soon after the parliamentary elections in September 2002. Columnists in Sweden's two largest morning newspapers, the liberal Dagens Nyheter and conservative Svenska Dagbladet, confirm that the committee's proposal has far from unanimous support. Referring to current and future problems in the Swedish economy, comments include 'forget and move forward', 'the committee's work has been meaningless' and 'wrong time, wrong place, wrong actors'. (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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