Committee rejects right to increased hours for part-timers

A committee appointed by the Norwegian government to examine ways of reducing 'underemployment'- ie the number of part-time workers who want longer hours - presented its report in December 2004. It does not recommend a statutory right to increased working hours for part-time workers, but wants to see a strengthening of the labour market administration's role in helping underemployed people increase their working time. Trade unions are disappointed with the committee's recommendations.

On 6 December 2004, a government-appointed committee presented its recommendations on how to reduce 'underemployment'. The committee’s mandate was to examine the extent of part-time work in Norway and to propose measures to reduce the occurrence of 'underemployment' or 'involuntary' part-time work. The level of part-time work is comparatively high in Norway, and may be explained by a high labour market participation rate, in particular among women. Although underemployment is not regarded as a general problem, it nevertheless poses a challenge in some female-dominated sectors of the national economy. Thus among the measures considered by the committee was the introduction of a statutory right for part-time workers to increase their working hours through being given preference in relation to new or vacant positions. The report of the committee is now to be considered by the relevant organisations.

Part-time work and underemployment

The most recent figures from Statistics Norway (Statistisk Sentralbyrå, SSB) show that every fourth employee is a part-time worker in Norway - the annual average for 2003 was 26.4%. Although the incidence of part-time work has increased slightly over the last couple of years, it has, in the long term, seen a general drop from 27.7% in 1993 to 26.1% in 2002. There are significant gender differences in relation to part-time work: 76.1% of all part-time workers in 2003 were women, and 42.6% of all women in employment worked part time, while the equivalent figure for men was 11.8%. There are a number of factors that may help to explain this gap, such as industry- and occupation-specific characteristics, but also other issues such as women’s childcare responsibilities (NO0410103F).

'Underemployment' is defined by SSB as part-time employees actively seeking longer usual working hours and who are in a position to start working extended hours within a month. According to this definition, 14.3% of all part-time employees were underemployed in 2003. The figure for 2002 was 13.4%. As with part-time work in general, there are significant gender differences. Some 16.1% of men working part-time regarded themselves as underemployed, compared with 13.8% of women. In a study commissioned by the committee, undertaken by the Ragnar Frisch Centre for Economic Research in Norway, a less stringent definition is also used, which ignores the requirement that employees must actively be seeking increased working hours (ie they need only in some way register their interest). According to this definition, 20.4% of all part-time workers were underemployed in 2002 - 24.3% of men working part time and 19.7% of women. Although the percentage share of employees who regard themselves as underemployed is larger among men than women, it is important to note that the number of part-time employees is so much larger among women that underemployed women, in total, constitute a much larger group (70% of all the underemployed).

The study by the Frisch Centre indicates that underemployment is a short-term phenomenon, and that there are few long-term underemployed people in Norway. Moreover, it is a relatively small problem in the national economy since the underemployed constituted only 3.8% of all employed persons in 2003. However, it is a challenge in that it is restricted to a few sectors, and a majority of employees affected are women. Underemployment is common in the public sector, and in particular in the health and social sector, but also in private sector services, particularly among occupations with a low level of education.

Recommendations to reduce underemployment

In November 2003 the government, following talks with the social partner organisations, set up the committee with a remit to 'deliberate the causes of part-time work, how part-time work affects employment and flexibility in the labour market, and to examine the occurrence of involuntary part-time work/underemployment, and propose measures to reduce the existence of involuntary part-time work/underemployment'. The committee had representation from almost all major social partner organisations.

One issue the committee was asked to consider was the introduction of a statutory right for part-time workers to increased working hours, ie that employers should have to give priority to part-time employees by increasing their hours before taking on new staff. Such a priority is already established in some collective agreements in Norway, including the 'basic agreement' in the municipal sector. A majority of the committee’s members, comprising representatives of employers' organisations and relevant governmental ministries, argue that there is no need for such a legal stipulation. The effects of such a statutory provision are not at all clear. The opponents argue that in many of the sectors in which underemployment is high, employees are already covered by collective agreement giving priority to part-time workers. Moreover, such a right might make the employment situation more difficult for more vulnerable groups in the labour market, in that employers may be more reluctant to employ such groups (eg people with a low level of education).

A minority on the committee, comprising representatives from trade union organisations, wants to see preferential treatment of part-time workers in the legal framework, arguing that this will enhance gender equality in working life. Women are over-represented among the underemployed, and improving the situation of part-time workers will serve to improve the situation of women in the labour market. Collective agreements do not, according to the minority, provide sufficient protection, because many part-time workers are located in private services, where collective agreement coverage is low, and are thus not subject to such priority provisions. A statutory right would safeguard all employees.

The committee also considered the legal position of part-time workers who work more than their stipulated working hours - ie work extra paid hours. In cases where such extra work takes on a more permanent nature, employees are entitled to have their working time changed correspondingly and made into a permanent arrangement. The committee majority sees no need to change the legal framework in this regard, arguing that the protection of part-time workers is already sufficient. The minority, on the other hand, wants to see the legal situation of part-time workers clarified, arguing that it is common among part-time workers to systematically work longer hours than stipulated by their employment contracts. The trade unions want the government to consider the issue further and propose legal changes that may strengthen the legal position of part-time workers.

There is unanimous agreement within the committee about the need to strengthen the role of the Public Employment Service (Aetat). This body already provides services to underemployed people, but only in so far as they actively seek more work by registering with Aetat. Aetat’s core activity has mainly been directed at unemployed people, and as such its services are often provided during hours that are inconvenient to people in part-time employment. The committee recommends that Aetat modify its educational activities to accommodate the underemployed, among other measures through increased use of web-based courses. Aetat should also provide courses directed at the long-term underemployed, similar to those given to long-term unemployed people. The development and provision of such courses should also involve participation by employers. One such measure may be to provide the underemployed with so-called mobility enhancement support, which is provided by Aetat to increase mobility in the labour market among unemployed jobseekers - eg financial support in connection with moving house, travel to and from job interviews etc.

Finally, the committee encourages the social partners at the company level to develop alternative work organisation and working time arrangements, which may contribute to a reduction in involuntary part-time work.

Comments

The high level of part-time work in Norway is very much due to a high level of female labour market participation. Underemployment figures follow very much the same patterns as part-time work, ie in those sectors with a high degree of part-time work, there will also be a high rate of underemployment. The outcome of the committee’s work very much reflects disagreement over the severity of the problem of underemployment in Norwegian working life. There is a general consensus about the fact that it is structural phenomenon affecting certain sectors (eg the health and social sector), occupations (eg non-registered auxiliary nurses) and groups (women). However, there is little consensus as to the most appropriate measures to be taken to deal with it. The committeee report is now being considered by the relevant organisations and public bodies. The Confederation of Higher Education Unions (Utdanningsgruppenes Hovedorganisasjon, UHO), the Confederation of Vocational Unions (Yrkesorganisasjonenes Sentralforbund, YS) and the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) issued a joint press statement, in which they expressed their disappointment with the recommendations of the committee. They emphasise the gender equality implications of underemployment, and are particularly critical of the majority’s failure to commend a statutory right to increased working hours for part-time employees. (Håvard Lismoen, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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