Split shifts prove a divisive issue in transport sector bargaining round

In this year’s bargaining round in the transport sector, the increasingly common use of split-shift working was a divisive issue. Unions demanded an end to the growing use of such schedules, wanting to see an absolute prohibition of them written into the 2010 collective agreement. After strike action was threatened, it was agreed that employers should only use split-shift rotas when absolutely necessary, and only after evaluating their impact on workers’ social and family life.

Background

A survey conducted by the newspaper Kommunalarbetaren (KA) in the first half of 2010 revealed an increasing use of split-shift working, a system where employees are expected to take a long unpaid break in the middle of their working day. This trend is particularly prevalent in the municipal and transport sectors such as health care, public transport, taxi-driving and shipping industries. This type of schedule makes it possible for an employee to work a 13-hour day with an unpaid break of up to five hours at any point during this time, as long as the worker then receives the statutory 11-hour rest before they have to report for work again. The survey shows that three quarters of the sectors staffed by members of the Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union (Kommunal) report the use of these divided work days. Overall, 70% of the sectors report an increase in the prevalence of such working time arrangements. According to some unions, the reason for this trend is that companies are trying to cut costs by paying employees only during the busiest hours of the day. In the case of the transport sector, this is in the morning and in the late afternoon when most people travel to and from work. Employers insist that they cannot afford to pay employees to be on duty or on standby when demand for their services is low.

Several unions, including Kommunal, the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union (Transportarbetarförbundet) and the largest white-collar union, Unionen, have voiced concerns about the increasing prevalence of split shifts. These concerns were highlighted in the 2010 bargaining round, and in Case DOM: 2/10 Mål: A221/08 (in Swedish, 118.9Kb PDF) between Unionen and Bussarbetsgivarna (a member organisation of Transportgruppen), which was settled in the Swedish Labour Court (Arbetsdomstolen) in January 2010.

The petitioner, Unionen, argued that a number of white-collar workers operating bus services had been forced into split-shift arrangements that were not compatible with the existing collective agreement between Unionen and Transportgruppen. The court found that the workers had been forced to accept far-reaching changes of their working time that were not compatible with their individual contracts of employment. The workers’ claim was therefore approved. However, the court found that working time schedules using split shifts were consistent with the collective agreement. This verdict may have affected Unionen’s position in the ensuing bargaining round.

Disagreement and new collective agreement

Unionen made split shifts a key issue in the 2010 bargaining round between Unionen and Transportgruppen. Negotiations between the parties broke down on 10 May 2010 with the issue unresolved and at the end of that month Unionen issued a strike notice for 7 June 2010 for bus and ferry workers. Unionen was demanding a new agreement to regulate split shifts so that employees would receive continuous shift schedules unless there were exceptional circumstances to justify the use of split shifts. The union argued that working days divided in this way were threatening workers’ private lives and work–life balance. Transportgruppen’s position was that Unionen’s demands would restrict the ability of transport companies to satisfy customer demand, and that a ban on split shifts would lead to unreasonable cost increases.

However, on 5 June 2010 the two sides signed a new collective agreement giving the sector’s 12,000 employees a wage increase of 3.5% from 1 May 2010 until 30 April 2012, with an additional 0.2% annually reserved for skills-enhancement initiatives. The issue of split shifts was also resolved. It was agreed that split shifts are to be avoided and that when employers need to introduce them, they must first evaluate the implications for workers’ social and family life. The introduction of a divided working day should also be preceded by negotiations and the consideration of alternative solutions. If no consensus can be reached, the issue must be submitted to an arbitration panel (Skiljenämnd).

The new agreement comes into effect on 1 October 2010.

Reactions from social partners

Representatives from both Unionen and Transportgruppen were satisfied with the settlement of the new collective agreement. Unionen’s chief negotiator, Niklas Hjert, stated that Unionen was satisfied with the agreement on the issue of split shifts which would allow employees to plan their private lives. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Transportgruppen, Peter Jeppsson, also expressed satisfaction with a solution which still gives employers the right to use split shifts where necessary. However, he criticised Unionen’s threat of strike action and accused the union of exaggeration. ‘We did not realise that the issue of split shifts was so important to the unions,’ said Mr Jeppsson.

Commentary

The use of split shifts has become an increasingly divisive issue in recent years with unions opposing the practice and employers, exposed to increasingly fierce competition, searching for alternatives to traditional work schedules.

The law, as set out in the Public Procurement Act (Lag om offentlig upphandling), does not require municipalities and other public bodies to take working hours and their social impact into consideration when procuring public transport services. This means that cutting costs has been the highest priority for many companies involved in public procurement, and the most effective way of doing this has been to have employees working only during the busiest hours.

The newly-signed agreement for the transport sector is likely to attract the interest of other sectors which are also seeing the increasing use of split shifts.

Mats Kullander and Oskar Eklund, Oxford Research

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