Austria: Dispute over doctors' pay in wake of EU working time law

Since the government's adoption of new legislation implementing a maximum 48-hour week in hospitals (to comply with the European Working Time Directive), several provincial governments and universities have struggled to find a compromise to compensate physicians for the loss of income caused by the decline in overtime hours (previously the law allowed for a working week of up to 72 hours). The conflict is particularly tense in Vienna, where the municipal government has negotiated a new pay and working time scheme for the 3,200 physicians employed by the city’s own hospital association (Wiener Krankenanstaltenverbund).

The contract was signed by a representative of the Vienna Chamber of Physicians (Wiener Ärztekammer) and the Municipal Workers Trade Union (GDG). The chamber represents the professional interests of physicians and the trade union represents their interests as salaried workers. After mounting criticism and frustration among doctors, the Chamber of Physicians organised a membership vote in which the vast majority (88%) rejected the agreement – mainly because of insufficient pay but also because the agreement forsees a reduction in the number of physicians. The chamber subsequently demanded new negotiations, while the GDG trade union continued to defend the compromise.

As the city government is reluctant to reopen the negotiations, the physicians staged a public demonstration in Vienna on March 23, which brought out 2,000 protesting doctors. In addition, some physicians have set up a new trade union, Asklepios, following the German example of the Marburger Bund. At present, it is unclear if and how the conflict will be resolved and what the new trade union will mean for interest representation in the healthcare sector. Apart from Vienna, the conflict is still unresolved in most university hospitals.

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