Work-life balance in collective bargaining examined

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According to research published in 2005, in Spain centralised collective bargaining at sector level favours the inclusion in agreements of provisions on work-life balance issues, whereas decentralised bargaining favours dispersion and an unequal treatment of the subject. Furthermore, EU Directives in this area have played an important role in introducing the subject of work-life balance onto the Spanish bargaining agenda

Two studies published in 2005 provide information and analysis on the development of collective bargaining relating to the 'work-life balance' (ES0504205F). The first study is entitled 'Discourse and practices on work-life balance in collective bargaining' (Discurso y prácticas sobre la conciliación de la vida laboral y familiar en la negociación colectiva, Pilar Carrasquer, Matilde Massó, and Antonio Martín Artiles, Número monográfico Revista Papers, 2005) and forms part of a collective project directed by Faustino Miguélez of the Quit Research Centre (Centro de Estudios Quit) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona), under the title 'Work and time: work-life balance' ('Trabajo y tiempo: conciliación de la vida laboral y familiar'). The second study, commissioned by the Women's Institute (Instituto de a Mujer), is entitled 'A study of work-life balance: the current situation, needs and demands' (Estudio sobre la conciliación de la vida familiar y la vida laboral: situación actual, necesidades y demandas, GPI Consultores, Insituto de la Mujer, Madrid, 2005). Below we highlight the main findings of the first study, referring to the second (and others) at various points.

Work-life balance in collective bargaining

The study by the Women's Institute, based on a survey of 200 companies with a high proportion of female employees, finds that the main measures used for reconciling work and family life (beyond those laid down in legislation) are: flexibility in the times of starting and finishing work (35%); free choice of shifts and exchanging shifts (31.6%); part-time work with the possibility of returning to full-time (26%); flexible distribution of hours over time (24.6%); longer maternity leave than the legal minimum (8%); teleworking (5.3%); financial aid for the care of dependants (2.8%); and nurseries in workplace (1.4%).

However, the research by Carrasquer et al indicates that these findings present an 'optimistic' view of the situation that has little relationship to the content of collective agreements with regard to work-life balance. In practice, the priority in collective bargaining is given to the traditional subjects, such as pay and jobs. Trade unions state that the specific priority is the 'conservation, maintenance and extension of employment'.

Subjects related to work-life balance, according to the research, take second place and tend to be framed within and subordinated to the issue of equal opportunities (ES0410204F). Furthermore, trade unions and the employers have a different understanding of work-life balance. The unions attempt to define it as a harmonisation of work, family and personal life that is subject to collective regulation because it affects the whole workforce, despite the great diversity of situations. The employers tend to understand work-life balance as a personal, individual question because of the variety of situations and family burdens. These two ways of understanding the question of work-life balance represent an obstacle to collective bargaining, it is argued. Further, the lack of importance given to this subject in collective bargaining is said to be a result of both business strategy (particularly in small companies) and the attitude of workers' representatives. Both have to some extent inherited the concept that the subject of work-life balance goes beyond the working environment and involves the 'peculiarities' of female workers.

According to Carrasquer et al, the main difficulties or obstacles to improving the work-life balance through collective bargaining are as follows:

  • the vast majority of members of collective bargaining commissions are men;
  • the trade union culture at company level is rooted in traditional 'patriarchal' values;
  • progress in achieving work-life balance is sometimes hindered by workers since the demand for improvements in this area by some workers - mainly women - leads to disputes with the rest of the workforce among whom the company has to redistribute the workload. This situation is particularly clear in workforces containing a high proportion of women;
  • employers are reluctant to introduce work-life balance in bargaining because they feel it may disturb work organisation, working hours and the concept of working time itself;
  • employers consider that the development of work-life balance through leave may lead to an increase in labour costs, particularly in predominantly female sectors such as retail; and
  • the high proportion of workers on temporary contracts weakens the bargaining position of the trade unions.

Influence of collective bargaining structure

According to the study, one of the challenges of 'multi-level governance' is to articulate the structure of collective bargaining in order to disseminate and coordinate the objectives of relevant EU Directives on work-life balance issues and Law 39/1999 on the reconciliation of work and family life (Ley 39/1999 de Conciliación de la vida laboral y familiar) (ES9911165F), and to develop the agreements reached through collective bargaining. An indication of the importance of having a centralised structure in order to promote bargaining on work-life balance is provided by a finding in a recent report by the Economic and Social Council (Consejo Económico y Social, CES): 'Around 60% of the national agreements include some regulation of work and family life' (Memoria sobre la situación socioeconómica de España, CES, Madrid, 2004). Centralised sectoral agreements, such as those in chemicals, paper and card pulp, flowers and plants, textiles, clothing and leather goods are those that have most incorporated the 1999 law on reconciling work and family life. They have also included notable clauses (or good practices) on pre-maternity leave and parental leave. In the decentralised agreements at regional/provincial and company level, on the other hand, less importance is given to improving on the provisions of the law, and of course their coverage is narrower.

Another recent study ('El tiempo de trabajo y la conciliación de la vida laboral y familiar', Amaia Otaegui, in La negociación colectiva en España, R Escudero (coordinador), Tirant lo Blanch, Valencia, 2004) argues strongly that the 40 national sectoral collective agreements are quantitatively and qualitatively those that offer the greatest technical and legal recognition, guarantees and protection based on the the 1999 law on reconciling work and family life. Agreements at this level have the highest number of clauses on paid leave, special arrangements during breastfeeding, the recognition of common law couples, and paid time off for doctor's visits or to accompany children on such visits. On the other hand, agreements at provincial and company level have the greatest number of irregularities, sometimes with conditions that are worse than those established by law and therefore illegal. This is indicated by the fact that many of these agreements still refer to the old text of the Workers' Statute (Estatuto de los Trabajadores), which limited leave for workers to 'surgical illnesses', a more restrictive term than 'hospitalisation', or fail to mention leave related to 'serious accidents'. They may include clauses that are illegal under the 1999 law, such as the reduction of entitlement to leave to care for close relatives, and in some agreements entitlement to special leave is restricted to workers on open-ended contracts.

Company agreements show a great diversity, whereas national sectoral agreements are more homogeneous. The sharp contrasts between the different levels include the fact that company agreements hardly deal with breastfeeding arrangements and have mostly failed to introduce the new aspects introduced by the 1999 law. The company agreements also include illegal aspects, such as the absence of 'hospitalisation' leave rights, 'serious accident' rights, the right to pre-natal examinations and the concept of 'close relatives and family members', and fail to recognise paternity leave. Company agreements even include more flagrant illegalities, such as restrictions on special leave entitlement if the worker does not have a minimum seniority or is not a permanent member of the workforce.


The relevant EU Directives appear to have played an important role in gradually promoting the introduction of work-life balance in Spanish collective bargaining. The complex exercise of governance has had a considerable influence on the incorporation of work-life balance on the agenda of the social partners, even though it is not seen as a priority subject. It is often dealt with in vague and general terms, but it is on the bargaining agenda, which is no mean achievement.

However, although work-life balance is now on the bargaining agenda, it is a subject of secondary importance. The provisions of the 1999 law on reconciling work and family life are gradually finding their way into collective agreements, with varying results but with greater success at national than at provincial, county or company level.

The application and acceptance of the 1999 law and its objectives depends on whether the structure of collective bargaining is centralised or decentralised. The centralised structure provided by national sectoral agreements not only facilitates a greater dissemination, but also a better governance in the administration of work-life balance objectives. Technical and legal aspects and the recognition, guarantee and protection of the rights to work-life balance are better defined in national agreements than in provincial, regional and company agreements. The decentralised structure of collective bargaining in the provincial, county and company agreements leads to a great diversity and heterogeneity in the clauses on work-life balance. At company level there are even clauses that worsen and restrict the application of the law, and are therefore illegal.

Finally, the policy of work-life balance has different meanings for the social partners, which is why the strategies vary at the local and company level. For the trade unions, work-life balance is a subject to be dealt with through collective action and bargaining, whereas for the employers it is a subject to be dealt with individually by human resources departments. (Antonio Martín Artiles, QUIT-UAB)

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