Government seeks more working time flexibility

In January 2007, as part of its programme for the coming legislative period 2007–2010, the new coalition government adopted a joint social partner proposal for the ‘flexibilisation’ of working time. However, the trade unions and government differ somewhat in their interpretation of the government agenda’s provisions on how to amend Austria’s working time regime.

On 11 January 2007, the new coalition government of the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ) and the conservative Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) was inaugurated by Austria’s Federal President (Bundespräsident), Dr Heinz Fischer. In its government programme (Regierungsprogramm 2007–2010 (in German)) for the coming legislative period 2007–2010, the new government outlined its plans to amend Austria’s working time regime, with the aim of introducing greater working time flexibility. When formulating the chapter on working time, the relevant political parties largely adopted a joint proposal devised by Austria’s major social partner organisations in the autumn of 2006.

Government proposals on working time

With respect to working time issues, the government programme, presented on 9 January 2007, includes the following range of measures:

  • Regarding overtime, the reference periods for extended maximum daily and weekly working hours in exceptional cases should be extended. Currently, in the event of an unusual demand for labour, and in order to avoid disproportionate costs to business, the works agreement allows for maximum working hours to be extended to up to 60 hours a week and 12 hours a day, on condition that both of the relevant parties to collective bargaining and the Labour Inspectorate (Arbeitsinspektion) have been consulted. Such an arrangement is possible for a maximum of 12 weeks in a year. According to the government proposal, this reference period should be doubled to a maximum of 24 weeks a year. Moreover, such arrangements should also be opened up to the parties to the individual contract of employment, in cases where a works council is absent, unless objections on the grounds of occupational health are put forward.
  • With respect to shift workers, continuous 12-hour shifts should be allowed, which is currently permitted only at weekends in case of a change of shifts. This scheme should continue to be conditional on an individual worker’s clean bill of health.
  • The parties to the collective agreement should generally be empowered to stipulate normal working hours of up to 10 hours a day. However, this provision is unclear, since the possibility for the bargaining parties to arrange 10-hour working days already exists, on condition that longer weekly or monthly rest periods compensating for these longer working days are provided.
  • In order to allow for more flexibility at individual company level, the parties to agreements should be empowered to rule all working time issues by works agreements in a way similar to the parties to collective agreements, if there is no employer organisation present capable of conducting collective bargaining.
  • With respect to flexitime – which under current labour law may be introduced only under a works agreement or, if no works council exists, by a written agreement with each individual employee – it is planned that normal daily working hours should be extended up to 10 hours. This means that normal working hours of up to 10 hours can be arranged within an agreed length of the flexible periods at either end of the working day, during which employees are free to choose their own times for starting and finishing work.
  • The parties to collective agreements, as well as works agreements and an individual contract of employment, should be entitled to introduce a working week consisting of only four working days, with the then extended daily normal working hours. In contrast to the current regulation, the four working days need no longer be consecutive, but may be interrupted by one day off work between two working days.
  • At present, in order to absorb ‘bridging days’, that is working days intervening between two non-working days and likewise days taken off work in between working days, the parties to the contract of employment may extend normal working hours to 10 hours on individual days within a seven-week reference period. It is planned that this reference period would be extended to 13 weeks in order to make it easier to make up for the ‘bridging days’.
  • In relation to part-time workers, a legal claim on premium rates of pay for overtime should be introduced, which are similar to the regulations for full-time workers (AT0610049I), unless normal working hours – that is, those laid down in the individual contract of employment – are adjusted to the actual working hours.
  • Penalties for employers which violate working hours regulations should be tightened.

Differing interpretations

Due to the partially unclear and redundant formulation of the government agenda, some disagreement has emerged between the political parties and the relevant social partners about how to interpret the programme’s provisions. When the Minister of Economy and Labour Affairs, Martin Bartenstein, stated in late January 2007 that normal working hours are set to be extended and rendered more flexible by law, without mentioning any compensation for the employees, the trade unions were critical. Trade unions contend that the draft proposals on working time flexibility set out in the government agenda need to be first accepted and subsequently implemented in substance by the social partners. In fact, most of the issues dealt with in the government paper are subject to social partner negotiations and collective bargaining. The unions announced that they will agree on working time flexibilisation only in the context of attendant measures that aim, in return for increased flexibility, at improving the pay and working conditions of the employees concerned.

In contrast, the employers reacted positively to Minister Bartenstein’s initiative, arguing that global competition would require an immediate flexibilisation of Austria’s working time regulations.

Commentary

During the past decade, various Austrian cabinets and employer organisations have repeatedly argued that Austria’s current working time regime is too rigid and inflexible (AT0504204F). As a result, the conservative-populist predecessor governments and the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKO) have been seeking to amend the Austrian Working Time Act (Arbeitszeitgesetz, AZG), in order to extend the current options for working time arrangements. This position has obviously been adopted by the new SPÖ-ÖVP government. However, when formulating the government agenda’s working time chapter, the two political parties involved did not clarify how to implement the joint proposals. In fact, most of the amendments to working time regulations envisaged by the government are in practice subject to collective bargaining, whereas the planned amendments to the AZG would slightly extend the legal framework for social partner activities in this field.

The Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) has always emphasised that collectively agreed arrangements at sectoral level rather than single law regulation can provide for specific accommodation of working time regulations to the various sector-related demands. Therefore, any attempts to undermine the social partners’ competence in bargaining would impede rather than help to establish appropriate sector-specific working time arrangements.

Georg Adam, Institute of Industrial Sociology, University of Vienna

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