Metalworking employers seek more flexible working time

Bargaining over a new collective agreement for the German metalworking sector began in December 2003. The Gesamtmetall employers’ association is seeking more room for working time flexibility at company level, allowing the local parties to conclude voluntary agreements on the length of the working week, and the attendant pay, within a 'corridor' of 35 to 40 hours, according to their requirements. The IG Metall trade union responded with some scepticism to these proposals, though it appears to be prepared to increase further the scope for determining terms and conditions at company level.

Bargaining over a new collective agreement for the metalworking industry started on 15 December 2003, and the employers’ association,Gesamtmetall, is seeking more flexible working time arrangements at establishment level. It states that its goals in the bargaining round are not only to secure jobs and incomes in a difficult environment, but also to create new jobs, and establishment-specific working time arrangements are seen as a key measure in this respect.

Employers’ position

At the end of November 2003, Martin Kannegiesser, the president of Gesamtmetall, called for the parties at establishment level to be allowed to agree, on a voluntary basis, the length of the working week, as well as the attendant pay, within a 'corridor' of 35 to 40 hours, according to their individual requirements. This would require the sectoral agreement's current 'quota regulation' to be rescinded. According to this regulation, up to 18% of employees within a company are allowed to work for up to 40 hours per week (DE0211204F). Mr Kannegiesser stated that 'until now, parties at the establishment level have only had, because of collective agreements, the possibility to secure jobs by reducing the amount of time worked each week, whilst reducing total wages accordingly. We want to create a new instrument with which establishments can secure incomes and employment by increasing the length of the working week, and which establishments can even use to create new jobs.' He also said that this could be seen as an extension of companies’ room for manoeuvre: 'Nobody will be forced to use the new instrument. It would be erroneous to suggest, as some have done, that I would like to reintroduce the 40-hour working week.'

For employers in the metalworking and electrical industry, establishment-specific working time must be a central issue in the bargaining round beginning in mid-December. Mr Kannegiesser based this demand on the profound structural change that is currently taking place within the industry (DE0311106F). He stated that this change will make new collective bargaining frameworks necessary, even if there is a possible economic recovery: 'The amount of time worked is nowadays the primary factor in determining the competitiveness of, and therefore the employment in, our companies. It has a lasting effect on the speed of development and unit wage costs, and these two elements are decisive in determining not only the extent to which, but also the context in which, our industry and the jobs in it will be maintained and developed in the coming years.'

On 4 December, Dieter Hundt, president of the Federation of German Employers’ Associations (Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Arbeitgeberverbände, BDA) also made some comments on this subject: 'We have a comprehensive and optimal flexibility in the way in which the working time is distributed. However, in the majority of collective agreements, there are strict regulations on the amount of time that can be worked. That cannot and should not be allowed to remain the case. The collective bargaining parties will have to withdraw from the regulation of working time to a greater degree. This regulation must, more and more, be left to parties at the establishment level. It is not, first and foremost, about emergency measures for companies in trouble. First, there are, as a rule, collective agreement solutions for those companies, and, second, such emergencies should not arise in the first place. It is, in general, much more about creating more room for manoeuvre for establishments.'

IG Metall position

The German Metalworkers’ Union (IG Metall) appears to view such demands by employers for longer working time with scepticism. For instance, on 9 November 2003, Berthold Huber, the vice-chair of IG Metall noted with regard to this issue that 'ideological repeat offenders on the employers’ side have consistently demanded an increase in the length of the working week, and have, in these demands, found an echo.' Moreover, on the subject of a general increase in working time, which has been raised to a certain extent in public debate, Mr Huber said that 'if everyone were to work for an extra three hours, what do you think would happen? Hundreds of thousands would lose their jobs, because the additional work would not automatically lead to new jobs. The reality is very differentiated. We have to be able to respond flexibly to different situations. And that is possible with our collective agreements.'

Commentary

With regard to working time, both employers and unions are in favour of responses that are, in comparison to former times, more differentiated, where necessary. The difference between the two sides is that, from the unions’ point of view, existing collective agreements provide more or less sufficient room for manoeuvre, while employers reject this argument. However, there appears to be at least some common ground for the 2004 metalworking bargaining round. On 12 December 2003, Jürgen Peters, the chair of IG Metall, stated that 'IG Metall is prepared, when it is necessary and as part of collective agreements, to increase further the room for manoeuvre at the firm level to determine the terms and conditions of work. The implementation, the extent, the problems that will be addressed, and the process by which firm-level negotiations on terms and conditions will be allowed will, however, remain the exclusive right of the collective bargaining partners.' Mr Kannegiesser of Gesamtmetall, also speaking on 12 December, made the following prognosis for the forthcoming bargaining round in the metalworking and electrical industry with regard to more flexibility at the firm level: 'I am confident that both sides will move towards each other on this important issue, and that nobody will keep their ears shut to the concerns and arguments of the other.' (Lothar Funk, Cologne Institute for Business Research, IW)

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