Minister supports employers’ demand for working time flexibility

In January 2013, Austria’s Minister for Economic Affairs gave his support for making working time regulations more flexible. The two major Austrian employer organisations have already called for an extension of maximum working hours and for an increase in the reference period for the calculation of overtime pay. The Labour Minister strongly opposes these demands, as do the unions who want shorter working hours and better-paid overtime.

Background

Austria’s federal Minister for Economy, Family and Youth, Reinhold Mitterlehner, has sparked a fresh debate on working time flexibility. In a recent interview, he demanded more flexible working hours and an extension of the reference period for the averaging of working time to two years.

The minister’s views back up year-long demands from the two major Austrian employer organisations, the Federal Economic Chamber (WKO) and the Federation of Austrian Industry (IV).

The minister also announced the start of talks on the issue with the Minister for Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection, Rudolf Hundstorfer. Labour Minister Hundstorfer, though, sees no need to change the current regulations. He has supported union views that working hours should be shorter, and believes changing rules on overtime will mean longer hours and less money for employees.

Employer organisations welcome debate

The employer organisations have welcomed Mitterlehner’s demands for change. Martin Gleitsmann, Head of Social Policy and Health at WKO, said companies had experienced problems with the current legislation which allowed collective agreements to set a 10-hour maximum working day. Gleitsmann said he would prefer the decision on working hours to be made at company level.

IV backed WKO’s demands and called for a maximum 12-hour day which would allow companies to organise work better during business cycle peaks. IV also demanded an increase in the reference period for the averaging of working time. It wants overtime premiums to be calculated over two years instead of the 12 months stipulated in many collective agreements.

Christoph Neumayer, General Secretary of the IV, argued that his organisation did not want people to work more hours overall, but instead wanted to know that workers could be available to work a longer day when they were needed. No compensation for a longer working day was envisaged. Exceptions, however, could be possible for especially tough jobs, such as heavy manual and physical work.

Unions reject increased flexibility

The unions fiercely rejected these demands, saying they were not family-friendly and not a reasonable way of making working time more flexible.

Rainer Wimmer, Chair of the Manufacturing Union (PRO-GE), said the demand for a 12-hour working day ‘catapults us back into the last millennium – the 12-hour day was abolished in the first republic, 1918 to 1938’. He considered the employers’ suggestion as strongly provocative.

Wimmer and Karl Proyer, National Secretary of the Union of Salaried Employees, Graphical Workers and Journalists (GPA-djp), both believe that the demand for increased flexibility is not intended to make organisation of working time during peak periods more effective. Instead they believe the motivation is to save money by not having to pay overtime premiums.

They said the changes would mean longer working hours for less money for employees. The unions stressed this could not be considered reasonable either from a health or an economic point of view. Longer working hours made employees sick and prevented people from joining the labour market.

The unions called for a shortening of working hours instead.

Flexibility is already there

The Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) said the provisions for flexible working hours already existed. Bernhard Achitz, ÖGB’s Secretary General, said he believed the current regulations were flexible enough. He said it wasn’t possible to reconcile the problem that employers were asking workers to stay longer in employment, and at the same time were threatening their health by asking them to work longer hours.

Austria is already among those countries in the EU-27 with the longest working hours. In the third quarter of 2012, the working volume of dependent employees had increased by 1.2 percentage points compared to 2011. Every employee who worked overtime in 2011 on average worked eight hours extra per week according to Statistics Austria. In order to discourage employers from demanding even more extra hours, overtime needs to be made more expensive, say the unions.

In 2011, there were twice as many violations of the Act on Working Time than the year before, especially in sectors such as construction and tourism where there is a large amount of shift work.

Bernadette Allinger, FORBA (Working Life Research Centre)

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