Slaughterhouse workers choose more leisure time over higher wages

In April 2003, workers in the Danish slaughterhouses and meat processing sector approved a new collective agreement in a ballot by a large majority. The agreement introduces a 'free choice' scheme, whereby workers can choose between spending 2.7% of the wage bill on more leisure time, a higher pension or higher wages. So far, more than half of them have opted for more time off work.

During the early months of 2003, the Danish Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Nærings –og Nydelsesmiddelforbundet, NNF) negotiated over a new collective agreement for the slaughterhouses and meat processing sector with the employers, represented for the first time by the Confederation of Danish Industries (Dansk Industri, DI) (DK0302102F). The result was a collective agreement running for only one year, which means that the next bargaining in the sector will form part of the major industrial sector negotiations to be held in 2004 (slaughterhouses and meat processing had previously negotiated on a separate timetable). The most interesting feature of the new collective agreement is the so-called 'free choice' scheme, which provides that workers can now choose between spending 2.7% of the wage bill on more leisure time, a higher pension or higher wages.

In ballots over acceptance of the agreement held in the major meat factories - those belonging to Danish Crown, Tulip, Tican and, most recently (at the end of April 2003), COOP Denmark and Stryhn’s- the great majority of NNF members voted in favour. More than 90% approved the deal, which can be seen as a clear indication that the new agreements meet the needs and wishes of the members. Beforehand, it had been considered doubtful whether the free choice model could be introduced in the retail part of the sector, including the newly established inter-Scandinavian chain of cooperative supermarkets, COOP, and among employees of members of the national butchers' association. However, acceptance of the new agreement indicates that the parties have found it possible to administer tailor-made schemes.

In a study of the different choices made by slaughterhouse and meat processing workers under the new free choice model, NNF has found that the majority have opted for more time off. Of 11,070 workers at the Danish Crown pork and beef division – which is by far the biggest meat processing operation in Denmark – 49.3% have chosen to use all of their convertible share of the total wage bill for six additional days of leave. Higher wages alone have been chosen by 36.5%, while a mere 1.6% have chosen only higher pension contributions. The remaining members have chosen different combinations of these three possibilities.

Similar choices have been made by Tulip employees; out of 1,151 slaughterhouse and meat processing workers, 65.1% have chosen more time off as their first priority, 18.4% have opted for higher wages, and 1.5% have preferred higher pension contributions. Only at the Tican plant at Thisted have workers put higher wages on the top of their list, and even here 41% of employees have chosen more leisure time. The results at COOP Danmark are not yet known.

The majority preference for more leisure time among slaughterhouse and meat processing workers may to some extent be surprising, as they already have eight weeks’ annual holiday. This is due to the fact that they permanently work 40 hours per week, which gives them three additional weeks of leave per year on top of the five weeks’ leave for all employees as laid down in the Holidays Act (DK0007188F). The choice to have a ninth week of annual leave may in most cases be due to the fact that that the piece-rate work performed by this category of workers means that they do not receive any wages if absent from the production line. If they have to take time off (eg to to the dentist), they receive no pay during their absence from work. The additional days off work can thus be used for tasks which mean that the worker has to be absent from work. Another argument for opting for more leisure time rather than higher wages is that higher wages will also mean higher taxes, so that the total result may seem less attractive compared with more days off work.

It is expected that the free choice model agreed in slaughterhouse and meat processing (and the finance sector) will set a precedent and be followed up by the rest of the labour market when the next bargaining round starts in the spring of 2004.

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