Parliament passes new working environment legislation

In June 2005, the Norwegian parliament passed a number of changes to current working environment legislation. The changes include provisions to make it easier to use temporary employees, and to improve the prospects of part-time employees to obtain extended working hours. Furthermore, the amendments seek to implement the 2002 EU information and consultation Directive. The new provisions will come into force in January 2006.

In June 2005 the Norwegian parliament voted in favour of a number of amendments to the Act relating to Worker Protection and the Working Environment (Arbeidsmiljøloven, AML) proposed by the government. The revised regulations will make it easier for companies to employ workers on a temporary basis. In addition the new legislation involves the introduction of a statutory right for part-time employees to extended working hours in situations where companies decide to take on new staff, in addition to a variety of other changes. Parliament also passed changes to the special provisions applicable to civil service employees.

When the government put forward its proposal for a revised AML in February 2005, this followed a long period of debate and deliberation (NO0210103F, NO0310103F, NO0312101N and NO0403102F). Among the more controversial issues were proposed changes to working time regulations, a right to use temporary employment, and the question of whether or not the legal framework may be used to prevent involuntary part-time work. The proposal also contained a number of other changes to the legal framework.

Temporary employment

The new legislation, which will come into force on 1 January 2006, relaxes the rules regulating temporary/fixed-term employment. A worker may, according to the new regulations, be employed on a temporary basis for up to six months (without justifications needed). This period may, if necessary, be extended by another six months. Moreover, the employer may use temporary employment in cases where 'the employee is only needed for a specific task or assignment'. This latter provision is a simplification of the restrictions in the present legal framework. Temporary employment may still be used in cases of temporary replacement (ie substitute employment because of an employee's absence from work).

Employees will in general have a right to open-ended employment when they have been temporarily employed in the company for four consecutive years (or more). Employees on temporary contracts where no special justification is given (ie for up to six months with the possibility of extension) will have a right to open-ended employment after a year in the company. In such cases, the employer may not terminate the contract before a year's service has been reached in order to take on new staff to do the same work. The legal framework has not until now contained provisions on how long a worker may be temporarily employed.

Nationwide trade unions may conclude agreements permitting more liberal rules. Up until now, such agreements have been restricted to artistic work, research work or work in connection with sport.

The changes in the legislation regarding temporary employment also mean that it will be easier for companies to use agency workers from temporary work agencies, since such employees can be hired in the same cases as where temporary/fixed-term employment is allowed.

Increased working hours for part-timers

Parliament also voted in favour of giving preference to part-time employees to increase their working hours if such are available in the company. This presupposes that the employee is qualified for the work and that such extension of working hours does not cause significant inconvenience to the company. Parliament supported the proposal of the government, which had decided to go against the recommendations of the public committee that considered the issue earlier, in which the majority opposed giving part-time employees such a priority (NO0412102F).

Working time and overtime

Working time regulations (overtime and extended working hours over limited periods followed by time off) was another important issue in the discussions surrounding changes to the existing work environment regulations. The rules relating to overtime and the calculation of averages over a given reference period ('annualisation') were changed in 2003 (NO0304103F). A majority of the committee that examined changes to the work environment legislation wanted to retain the present system, although in a slightly modified form. Most trade unions, on the other hand, wanted to see a reversal of these changes and a return to the original and more restrictive situation before the 2003 deregulation (NO0408102F). The government ended up proposing an intermediate model, which also was supported by parliament.

At present, employees with management responsibilities or who perform independent work are exempted from these rules. Although the new legislation limits the scope of these exceptions to some degree, it does not, according to the trade union side, go far enough. Parliament also kept the present definition of night work (work between 21.00 and 06.00) in spite of a government proposal to change the definition to work between 22.00 and 06.00.

EU information and consultation Directive

The amendments seek to implement the 2002 EU information and consultation Directive (2002/14/EC) (EU0204207F) by incorporating its provisions, as an independent section, in the revised Act. The Act thus now stipulates the issues on which the employer has to inform employee representatives, the companies covered by the rules and the way in which the information should be given. It also lays down rules on how sensitive information is to be handled. It is further emphasised, however, that the social partners themselves may agree on how this duty to inform and consult may be put into practice. Information and consultation rights are, in many parts of the Norwegian labour market, already regulated by collective agreements (NO0309102T). It is thought that the new regulations will mainly be relevant where no collective agreements exist.

Other provisions

The new legislation contains a number of other changes based on the recommendations made by the public committee. It aims to achieve, for example, stronger protection against discrimination and for employees who disclose malpractices by their employers (so-called whistleblowers), better rules on monitoring and surveillance, and the regulation of employees’ rights in relation to the transfer of undertakings.

Amendments to civil service regulations

A proposal to change the Act relating to Civil Servants was also put forward in the spring of 2005. At present, state sector employees are covered by separate rules in areas such as temporary employment and dismissals, and there is a special form of unemployment benefit for these employees. The government called for a harmonisation of the legal framework for state sector employees and employees in other sectors. However, many of the special provisions pertaining to senior civil servants (who are few in number) are retained.

The revised AML‘s provisions on temporary employment and dismissals have thus now been made applicable to most state sector employees. At present the use of temporary employment is less complicated in the state sector than elsewhere in working life, while employment protection is significantly stronger. The most controversial proposal was that of abolishing the present special unemployment benefit for state sector employees, where employees keep their state sector employment status even though their jobs no longer exist. Restructuring and workforce reductions have meant that many more employees are receiving such benefits than previously was the case, and many stay on such benefits for a considerable length of time.

State sector trade unions strongly opposed many of the proposals, in particular that abolishing the special unemployment benefit scheme, and argued that the proposed changes had not been subject to sufficient deliberation. However, a majority in parliament supported the government's proposals.

Commentary

The proposals from the government - a centre-right minority coalition of the Conservative Party (Høyre), the Christian Democratic Party (Kristelig Folkeparti, KRF) and the Liberal Party (Venstre) - gained support from a majority in parliament. However, a minority consisting of the Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Vensterparti, SV), the Norwegian Labour Party (Det norske Arbeiderparti, DNA) and the Centre Party (Senterpartiet, SP) wanted alternative formulations on number of issues. The original proposal from the public committee that considered the issue met with strong criticism from most parts of the trade union movement. The unions partly argued that some of the recommendations would mean a worsening of the present situation, and partly that the committee did not go far enough in proposing new legalisation to meet the challenges in a new and changing working life. The government’s proposals took into consideration some of the criticism raised by the trade unions, while at the same time upholding a number of the more controversial recommendations. The unions have pledged to fight parts of the legislation, in particular that relaxing temporary employment rules, and have gained support from the three opposition parties that are collaborating with the aim of winning the general election that will take place in September 2005.

The trade unions have, on the other hand, scored an important victory with regard to giving part-time workers priority to increase their working hours. This is regarded as important from an equal opportunities perspective, since involuntary part-time work is a phenomenon mainly affecting women.

The employer side is disappointed with the fact that the government did not follow the recommendations of the committee with regard to working time annualisation, and is sceptical about the introduction of a statutory right for part-time workers to have priority to increase their working hours. However, the employers are satisfied with - among other points - the new regulations on working hours. Overall, the employers' side is probably more satisfied with the new legislation than the trade unions are.

On a more general note, the amendments may be seen to represent a moderate revision and modernisation of the existing legal framework, in which new provisions have been developed and existing practices have been incorporated in areas of relevance to a changing working life. This also involves keeping the regulations in line with EU provisions. (Kristine Nergaard, FAFO Institute for Applied Social Science)

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