Right to parental part-time work proposed

In August 2003, the Austrian government proposed a right to part-time work for the parents of children of pre-school age. However, opposition political parties and trade unions argue that the scheme could be a 'trap', in particular for women, in terms of their chances of re-entering full-time employment and their future pension entitlememts. Therefore, they are demanding specific supporting measures to complement the proposed provisions.

In August 2003, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel of the conservative People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) announced that the government is willing to introduce a right to part-time work for parents with children of pre-school age. By introducing such a part-time scheme, the government's stated aim is to facilitate the reconciliation of work and family obligations, in particular for mothers of small children. Under the proposal, all parents with children of pre-school age (ie younger than seven years) would be entitled to switch form full-time to part-time employment, if they work for companies employing a certain minimum number of workers. Interestingly, by launching this initiative, the ÖVP has taken up a long-term demand of the trade unions and the opposition Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ), which had also been raised in a 1997 'women’s referendum initiative' (Frauenvolksbegehren), signed by about 645,000 people.

The ÖVP, which for a long time opposed any legal entitlement to part-time work for parents (arguing that this would damage the competitiveness of Austria’s companies) has obviously recently changed its mind, in view of a continuously increasing number of (female) part-time workers and an ongoing debate about a nationwide lack of childcare facilities. At present, according to Statistics Austria, there are about 388,700 mothers of one or more children aged under seven, 41% of whom (ie about 159,600) are in employment. Of those employed mothers, some 65,600 work on a full-time basis, while 94,000 are part-time workers. Corresponding figures for men are not available, as the number of fathers of small children who work part time is extremely low. Men make up only 2% of all beneficiaries of Austria’s new childcare benefit scheme (Kinderbetreuungsgeld). This scheme provides for childcare benefit payments to a parent taking leave in order to assume childcare obligations during the period up to the child’s third birthday (AT0304201N) - the two parents may take the leave alternately.

Although the trade unions and the parliamentary opposition parties - the SPÖ and the Greens (Die Grünen, GRÜNE) - agree in principle with the government’s plan to introduce a parental part-time work scheme, they oppose a number of important details. Above all, the SPÖ, GRÜNE and the unions demand a right to re-enter full-time employment for the employees who opt for this scheme. Otherwise, it is argued, using parental part-time work will become an impediment to re-entering full-time employment, particularly for women. Moreover, there is criticism of the fact that, according to the government’s plans, the scheme will apply only to companies employing at least 20 employees - indeed the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) employers' organisation has suggested a threshold of 50 employees. Due to the predominance of small firms in Austria, only 74% of all employees would be covered by the government's proposed scheme (or about 61% under WKÖ's proposal). The unions also demand compensation for losses in future pension benefits owing to lower pension insurance contributions during the part-time working period, since a 2003 pensions reform introduced a staged extension of the period of earnings on which pension benefits are calculated from the 15 best-paid working years at present to 40 years (AT0305201N). In order to prevent major cuts in pension benefits for women who take longer periods of leave to meet childcare obligations, the unions are calling for a more favourable consideration of these periods in the calculation of future pensions.

The junior partner in the coalition government, the populist Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ), appears to be taking up some of the criticisms, demanding that all employees – regardless of firm size – should be covered by the scheme, an approach which strongly contrasts with the position of the ÖVP.

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