First nationwide agreement signed for social and health services

In November 2003, the Association of Employers for Professions in Health and Social Services (BAGS) and three trade unions concluded Austria’s first nationwide collective agreement for the private social and health services sector. This agreement is regarded as a milestone for this sector in terms of employment conditions and pay, covering 35,000 workers in areas such as kindergartens, childcare and refugee welfare.

The private social and health service sector is a growing segment of the Austrian labour market. However, it is characterised by precarious and inconsistent employment conditions, due to the vast number of different organisations and establishments which supply services for groups such as people facing underprivilege and discrimination, people with disabilities and old people. Aside from public institutions such as regional (Länder) governments and communities, there are about 2,300 small-sized and about 20 large private-law establishments providing social and health services, including child and youth welfare, services for people with disabilities, geriatric nursing, care for refugees and foreigners etc.

Since there is no consistent, nationwide legal framework for this sector with respect to standard training regulations or a consistent description of occupations, employees face a lack of clear career prospects as well as a broad variation in (often inferior) working conditions. The vast majority (about 80%) of employees are women. Until now, collective or company agreements have existed only for a few larger establishments and most of them have been concluded solely at Länder level. In general, these agreements do not go much beyond provisions on minimum pay and weekly working hours. As a consequence of this fragmentation in bargaining, the same organisation (such as the Catholic church) may offer different employment contracts for the same jobs in each of its nine Länder sub-units (Diözesen). However, most of the employees in the private social and health service sector are not covered by any collective or company agreement at all. This is because occupations in the social and health service sector were for a long time (up to the second half of the 20th century) the domain of the churches (in particular the Catholic church) which considered these occupations to be honorary posts rather than real professions. As a heritage of the previous situation, both the pay and social prestige related to clear-cut professions have remained under-developed in this sector. This is reflected in a continuing very low unionisation rate among the employees.

The BAGS employers’ association

In March 1997, the Association of Employers for Professions in Health and Social Services (Berufsvereinigung von Arbeitgebern für Gesundheits- und Sozialberufe, BAGS) was founded by a few larger establishments employing about 20,000 employees. In October 1997, BAGS was recognised as possessing the capacity to conclude collective agreements by the Federal Arbitration Board (Bundeseinigungsamt), the relevant joint body within the Federal Ministry of Economy and Labour Affairs (this board's role is to confer the right to conclude agreements on trade unions and employers’ organisations of which membership is voluntary, if they are independent, representative, operate above company level and in a position to wield effective bargaining power).

The purpose of the foundation of BAGS - which now represents about 130 establishments altogether employing about 35,000 workers - was to strengthen the employers' (joint) position towards Länder governments and the federal state (which partially fund these establishments) and thus to consolidate their finances. Moreover, the main tasks of BAGS have been to draw up coherent, nationwide standards in service quality and to develop consistent professional profiles, including uniform training and retraining schemes. This is of paramount importance for this sector since, at present, many social and health services are offered by illicitly operating firms working for 'dumping' prices without observing any quality standards or minimum standards in terms of working conditions. Moreover, the current shortage of highly skilled personnel in social and welfare professions is - to a high degree - the result of the lack of consistent professional profiles allowing for an easy change of occupation.

Unions representing social and health service employees

Most of BAGS’ aims - such as the establishment of consistent occupations/professions and uniform training systems as well as the definition of binding minimum standards in service quality - are consistent with the interests of the trade unions. However, the fact that private social and health services has hitherto lacked any nationwide collective agreement has resulted from the specific structure of this sector. On the one hand, there is a broad variety of establishments with respect to their size, their ownership structure, their interests, their operating areas, their political influence etc. This for a long time hindered the employers from setting up a joint interest organisation. On the other hand, due to this variety of employers, it has proved hard for the unions to find partners on the employers’ side for negotiations on industrial relations, in particular above company level. Furthermore, the great variety of working conditions, as well as the lack of clear-cut professions in this sector, have proved a strong impediment for the unions to recruit many employees in this sector and to include them into their representational domain. There are currently three trade unions representing social and health service employees: the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA); the Hotel, Restaurant and Personal Services Union (Gewerkschaft Hotel, Gastgewerbe, Persönliche Dienste, HGPD); and the Commerce, Transport and Traffic Workers’ Union (Gewerkschaft Handel, Transport, Verkehr, HTV).

First nationwide agreement signed

When BAGS was founded in 1997, the founder establishments immediately agreed to get in contact with the relevant trade unions in order to negotiate over a first nationwide collective agreement for the private social and health service sector. The aim was to establish coherent working conditions for the sector across the whole country and thus to eliminate unfavourable 'dumping' effects affecting both employers (due to unfair competitive conditions) and employees (due to unfair pay and lack of any minimum standards in working conditions).

After five years of intense negotiations, on 3 November 2003, the BAGS and the three unions concerned eventually concluded the first nationwide collective agreement covering about 35,000 employees in the private social and health service sector. Some occupational groups, such as kindergarten teachers, child daycare workers and refugee welfare workers, will thus be covered by a nationwide agreement for the first time, which is though to be a first in Europe. The agreement will come into effect on 1 July 2004 and cover about 60 professions. It lays down a uniform pay scheme providing for nine different pay levels according to skills and vocational experience, which replaces more than 200 different pay schemes provided for in individual company regulations. Moreover, weekly working hours will be reduced to 38 hours by stages, while any overtime work will attract pay supplements. In particular, the introduction of a week consisting of only five working days signifies a considerable improvement for many employees performing psychologically and physically difficult work. The agreement also provides for a sabbatical leave scheme, more favourable annual leave rules and extended framework rules on working time flexibility. Part-time workers will receive a 25% pay supplement if their actual working hours are more than five hours above the weekly norm on average within a certain reference period.

Commentary

According to demographic forecasts, the number of people aged over 80 in Austria will double from the current 290,000 by 2030. This also means that the number of employees needed in the social and health service sector will significantly increase. In order to achieve further and continuous recruitment of personnel in this sector, clear-cut regulations in terms of professions, working conditions and training and retraining schemes are required. Although employment conditions have now (formally) been improved and harmonised by the first nationwide collective agreement in this sector, the conclusion of this agreement has to be regarded only as a first step. This is because the agreement does not cover the whole of the sector (large establishments such as the church-related Caritas and Diakonie, as well as Rotes Kreuz, have concluded their own company agreements) and has only set the minimum provisions which are common in most other sectors. Each Land has its own training standards for social and health service professions. As both the BAGS and the unions argue, a nationwide harmonisation of training standards for well-defined professions would be indispensable in making these professions more attractive, which is a prerequisite for securing future social and health services. Such a harmonisation would be decisive for these professions and training certificates to be acknowledged by other EU Member States, which would grant many more mobility opportunities as well as professional prospects for the employees concerned. (Georg Adam, University of Vienna)

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