Opposition to government bill on part-time work

In January 2002, Denmark's new Liberal-Conservative government presented a bill amending the current legislation on part-time work. It proposes that restrictions on the use of part-time work laid down in collective agreements should be abolished. The bill has been criticised by the social partners, which accuse the government of intervening in the collective bargaining system. The Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) fears that the new legislation would result in some part-timers working for fewer hours than is necessary to gain entitlement to various benefits and employment rights, and that some employees would be forced to take on several part-time jobs.

Immediately after coming to office in November 2001, the new coalition government of the Liberal Party (Venstre) and Conservative People's Party (Konservative Folkeparti), announced that it would table a bill amending the current Act on part-time work (DK0112147F). The bill was presented at the end of January 2002.

The bill states (in section 4(a)) that: 'An employee and an employer shall have the right to conclude an agreement on part-time work for the employee. Any direct or indirect obstacle to or restriction in this right, for instance by virtue of collective agreement, custom or practice, shall be void.' It should thus be noted that the bill does not give an employee a statutory right to work part-time. It provides 'freedom' for the employee and the employer to enter into an agreement concerning part-time work without any restrictions arising from collective agreements. However, the employee will have no rights in the event that the employer turns down the employee's request to work part-time.

According to the explanatory notes to the bill, the proposal should be seen 'as an element of the government's 'freedom package' in the labour market field'. It is clear - in the light of the government's programme - that the emphasis in the part-time work proposal is on personal or individual freedom, rather than on the freedom of the social partners to conclude agreements which regulate this issue.

The new Minister for Employment, Claus Hjort Frederiksen, has stressed that the government wishes to respect the Danish collective bargaining model and the social partners, but according to trade unionists and some industrial relations researchers this statement is in sharp contrast to the new bill. The proposal to introduce a statutory right for employers and individual employees to agree on part-time work without any collectively-agreed restrictions is seen as hitting at the core of the central issue of the balance between agreements and legislation in the regulation of pay and working conditions. The main rule at present is that it is left to the social partners to regulate these issues in the form of collective agreements. This is why the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) and other trade unions have criticised the government's proposal concerning part-time work, arguing that that legislation in this field - which has so far been regulated by collective agreements - will undermine the collective bargaining model.

On 1 February 2002, the social partners in the industry sector, the Confederation of Danish Industries (Dansk Industri, DI) and the Central Organisation of Industrial Employees in Denmark (CO-industri) together issued an open letter to parliament, Folketinget, in which they call on politicians not to introduce legislation in areas where the social partners have already concluded collective agreements. The balance between legislation and agreements will thereby be altered in the wrong direction, they claim in the letter. The main reason for this united approach is obviously the new proposals on part-time work.

There have been strong reactions from the trade unions to the government's political intervention. LO has carried out a study which finds that the maximum number of Danish employees who are excluded from part-time work by collective agreements is only 4%. Some 17% can work part-time without any restrictions, while 79% have access to part-time work subject to some collectively-agreed restrictions. Of these, 67% are covered by restrictions in the form of regulation of the number of hours worked; typically, minimum thresholds for the number of hours worked, such as 12 or 15 hours per week. The reason for such provisions is that a specific minimum number of working hours is a condition for entitlement to a number of social security benefits and employment rights. It is, for instance, a condition for entitlement to unemployment benefits that the employee is employed for at least eight to 12 hours per week (depending upon whether he or she is insured part-time or full-time against unemployment). The protection offered to white-collar staff by the Act on Salaried Employees (Funktionærloven), covering matters such as notice periods and full pay during sickness, applies only to employees working eight hours or more per week. Entitlement to sickness and maternity pay requires nine hours' work per week and entitlement to labour market supplementary pensions eight to 10 hours' work per week in the public sector.

If collective agreements did not lay down requirements on a minimum number of working hours for part-time employees, the consequences might be that some employees could be forced to accept a number of working hours so low that they would lose a number of the abovementioned benefits and rights. For LO, the worst-case scenario would be an 'Americanisation' of the labour market with some groups of employees being forced to take on several part-time jobs in order to make a living, but losing their entitlement to pensions, sickness benefits etc in spite of a high weekly number of working hours. However, a number of collective agreements contain other restrictions which seem to support the government's argument that some agreements actually exclude the possibility of working part time, and some provide that part-time work can be agreed upon only at the start of the employment relationship.

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