Conference on social dialogue in hospital and healthcare sector

On 12 September 2006, the Austrian Association of Public and Social Enterprises (VÖWG) held a conference in Vienna on the development of social dialogue in the hospital sector at EU level. This conference served to promote the organisation’s activities and to provide an overview of recent developments in the field of European social dialogue in the hospital sector.

The Austrian Association of Public and Social Enterprises (Verband der Öffentlichen Wirtschaft und Gemeinwirtschaft, VÖWG) is the Austrian section of the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP). It represents Austrian enterprises and institutions with public participation and/or ownership, and enterprises providing services of general interest (Dienstleistungen im Allgemeininteresse), irrespective of their legal ownership or status.

Thus, companies in the public and private sectors may be members of VÖWG, which counted between 90 and 100 member companies in June 2006. Moreover, services of general interest include areas such as education, health services, and cultural and social services in addition to the ‘traditional’ public utilities, such as energy and water supply, public transport, and postal and telecommunications services.

Role and tasks of VÖWG

At national level, VÖWG cooperates closely with representative bodies of the three administrative government levels: the federal (i.e. central) state; the provinces (Länder); and the local authorities (cities and municipalities). It also maintains close links with associations whose membership domains relate to that of VÖWG, such as the Association of Municipal Enterprises (Verband Kommunaler Unternehmen, VKÖ). Moreover, the Austrian Association of Municipalities (Österreichischer Gemeindebund) and the Austrian Association of Cities (Österreichischer Städtebund) are members of VÖWG.

As a – with respect to its membership domain – de facto representative employer organisation which covers a variety of segments of the economy, VÖWG has repeatedly been involved in the national implementation of EU Guidelines which affect its members. However, its role as a social partner in relation to a trade union is limited, since it is not entitled to conclude collective agreements (AT0204202F). So far, there are two reasons to explain VÖWG’s absence in collective bargaining processes, namely:

  • As VÖWG represents companies and institutions of the public sector, which is excluded from formal bargaining, there is no scope for the organisation to get involved in collective bargaining; employment conditions of public sector employees are subject to unilateral state regulations. Nevertheless, as a consequence of privatisation, the restrictions of the public sector are changing, affecting both employment relationships and the industrial relations system, so that some of the former public sector organisations have been recognised as possessing the capacity for collective bargaining.
  • According to Austria’s system of mandatory membership of the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKO) for all private sector employers, virtually all private sector companies organised within VÖWG are also members of WKO and its sectoral subunits, with the latter engaging in sectoral collective bargaining on behalf of employers. Due to WKO’s predominance in collective bargaining and VÖWG’s lack of bargaining capacities, it appears to be difficult for VÖWG to establish ground in Austria’s industrial relations system.

Nevertheless, changing industrial relations in the public sector as well as the fact that some enterprises delivering services of general interest do not feel appropriately represented by WKO may create a growing need for an employer representation with bargaining capacities in the sector. Therefore, the possibility for VÖWG to take on bargaining activities in the foreseeable future should not be ruled out.

VÖWG currently identifies the following tasks as its main responsibilities: providing information and advice to its members; drafting bills; elaborating and issuing opinions to decision makers at national and European level; lobbying for its member companies; and public relations. In this context, on 12 September 2006, the association organised a conference in Vienna’s city hall on the current developments in the European social dialogue in the hospital and healthcare sector.

European social partnership structures in hospital sector

The conference’s objective was to inform VÖWG’s members in the hospital and healthcare sector, especially hospitals and local and regional authorities, about sectoral social dialogue developments at European level. The conference thus presented the European actors in the sector; moreover, the main problems of the sector as well as the future outlook for the sector’s industrial relations were discussed.

In this context, it is important to note that the representative sectoral employer organisation at EU level was established only on 27 September 2005, when the Hospital and Healthcare European Employers’ Association (HOSPEEM) held its constitutional assembly. HOSPEEM is a sectoral member of CEEP. Several national CEEP members within the hospital sector, who were already involved in the informal preparatory period of the sector’s social dialogue at EU level beginning in 2000, initiated HOSPEEM.

With the establishment of HOSPEEM as the sectoral counterpart of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), the preconditions for formalising a European sectoral social dialogue were fully met. As a result, on 17 March 2006, the parties concerned announced the establishment of a European Social Dialogue Committee in the hospital sector, which signifies the official recognition of the parties involved as European social partners. The inaugural meeting of the European Social Dialogue Committee was scheduled for 20 September 2006.

According to the participants and panellists of the Viennese conference, in particular the General Secretary of HOSPEEM, Godfrey Perera, and the Head of the EPSU committee for health and social services, Tamara Goosens, the sectoral European social partners have agreed a work programme for 2006–2007. This work programme sets out the EU social partners’ strategy, their objectives and the main issues at stake. It also identifies the major European-wide problems in the hospital and healthcare sector, and proposes to establish working groups in the agreed subject areas of:

  • recruitment and retention, with the aim of determining common practices for cross-border recruitment of hospital personnel;
  • age profile of the hospital workforce, aimed at identifying Member State and regional initiatives to promote active ageing policies;
  • new skill needs in the hospital sector in order to define existing categories of hospital professionals and workers, and to identify successful training initiatives as well as areas for improvement in training courses.

All parties involved, including the VÖWG representatives, emphasised the importance of developing an effective European sectoral social dialogue in healthcare to cope with future challenges in the hospital sector.

Commentary

From a formal point of view, VÖWG is only marginally involved in industrial relations in Austria, since it is not entitled to conclude collective agreements. Nevertheless, the association does have an impact on collective bargaining, in particular in consultation procedures and tripartite talks regarding the future profile of services of general interest and their employment relationships. Among its member companies, several institutions and enterprises feel more adequately represented by VÖWG than by the rather business-orientated WKO.

Against this background, VÖWG sees an opportunity to acquire the legal capacity of collective bargaining on behalf of its member companies – at least over a medium-term perspective. Ongoing privatisation and transformation of public services into private or semi-private companies (known as Ausgliederung) may help VÖWG to achieve this objective. Moreover, the changes in industrial relations in the organisations affected which are now based on the private sector model may also be helpful in this respect.

Furthermore, the main aim is to establish and consolidate a European social dialogue also in sectors delivering services of general interest, such as the hospital sector. This implies a revaluation of the sector-related social partners, in particular at EU but also at national level. Therefore, VÖWG has closely watched the establishment of HOSPEEM and the setting up of the European social dialogue in the hospital sector, as the association’s chance of establishing itself as a representative social partner in Austria also depends on developments in the sector’s European social dialogue. Meanwhile the Austrian Hospital and Health Services Platform, organised within VÖWG, has joined HOSPEEM as full member. Thus, organising the conference on industrial relations in the European hospital sector can be seen as a strategic promotional event of VÖWG.

Georg Adam, Institute of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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