New agreement for social and health services

It is 10 years since Austria’s first nationwide agreement in the social and health service sector was negotiated. The most recent collective bargaining process has just been concluded, and for the first time it has involved the charitable organisations of the Catholic and Protestant Churches, social partners that until now have always conducted their own, separate collective bargaining rounds. A wage rise of 2.7% was agreed for the sector’s 120,000 employees.

Background

After several rounds of tough negotiations and protest actions, a new collective agreement was reached for the 120,000 employees in Austria’s social and health service sector. The resulting wage increase of 2.7% could be regarded as relatively low compared to other sectors.

For the first time, mutual negotiations in a ‘global’ round of bargaining took place. Employers were represented by the Association of Employers for Professions in Health and Social Services (BAGS), but also by the charitable organisations of the Catholic (Caritas) and Protestant (Diakonie) churches which in previous years have always conducted separate negotiations.

A collective agreement was first negotiated by BAGS in 2003 (AT0312202F). The sector is characterised by a high proportion of female employees (80%) and often involuntary part-time workers (70%). Stressful work, low wages and underfunding by public authorities are also typical of the sector.

Wage agreement

At the beginning of the global bargaining round, the initial employers’ offer was a wage increase of just 1.8%. It was rejected by the unions on the grounds that wages in the sector were already notoriously low, around 18% below average private sector income.

A campaign, Soziale Arbeit ist mehr wert! [Social work is worth more], was launched in 2009 by the two unions representing private employees in the sector, the Union of Salaried Employees, Graphical Workers and Journalists (GPA-djp) and the vida trade union. This campaign was relaunched for the latest bargaining round.

A number of works meetings and five large demonstrations involving more than 7,000 protesters took place. The largest protest was on 30 January 2013. Industrial action was threatened if demands for a wage increase of at least 3% were not met.

On 4 February 2013, a compromise between the employers and unions was reached. They settled on a minimum wage increase of 2.75%, and of 2.7% for higher wage groups. The union representatives, however, were far from united. The works council members’ vote was only narrowly in favour of acceptance, 21 for and 19 against.

Compared to sectors such as retail, the wage agreement was one of the lowest of recent times. The minimum wage for job entrants in the lowest wage groups is just above €1,400 gross per month. The collective agreement is valid from 1 February 2013 onwards and covers about 120,000 employees.

Predictions show that the sector needs to recruit an additional 17,000 employees by 2020.

Framework conditions

Several improvements in the framework conditions were reached, however. For the first time in Austria, employees will be able to take a 12-month unpaid break from work ‘for caring purposes’ as part of their collective agreement. This covers employees represented by BAGS and Diakonie, but not Caritas. Times for which this leave is taken will be calculated towards holiday claims and the upgrading in wage groups.

In addition, previous work experience in sectors other than the social and health care sector will be taken into account when deciding which wage group a worker belongs in. The agreement specifies that half of up to six years of work experience will be accepted – in effect, a maximum of three years.

Social partner reaction

The unions were somewhat unsure about the negotiated outcome of the bargaining rounds.

Katharina Zenz, Negotiator for GPA-djp, said that a compromise had been reached between the tense budgetary situation of the public authorities and the justifiable demands for continuous wage development. Her colleague, Advocacy Senior Vice-President Reinhard Bödenauer, described the negotiations as relatively difficult and emotional. He considered the agreement a practical compromise taking into consideration the financial situation in some provinces, where zero-sum wage rounds were implemented.

Michaela Guglberger, vida Group Secretary, was unhappy that the provision of leave for caring purposes was not included in the collective agreement for Caritas employees.

It was hoped organised business might step in to help to finance the wage increases, since some provinces and the federal state have so far made no financial commitment on their funding. Due to the fact that the wage increases were modest compared to other sectors, the Chief Executive of the BAGS employer organisation, Wolfgang Gruber, said he was banking on the goodwill and understanding of the ‘financial sponsors’.

Bernadette Allinger, FORBA (Working Life Research Centre)

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