Germany: Labour Minister launches White Paper on the future of work

Federal Labour Minister Andrea Nahles launched a White Paper at the end of November on the future of work, including the controversial issue of working time regulation. Both employers and workers’ representatives favour more flexibility than is allowed by current regulations that stipulate an eight-hour working day, but unions want to safeguard workers’ rights to choose how many hours they work. 


Working time regulation is currently a contentious issue in Germany. The Confederation of German Employer Organisations (BDA) has called for an end to regulations that stipulate an eight-hour-day and a move towards regulated weekly working time (PDF). It also wants the Working Time Act amended to allow collective agreements to shorten the minimum statutory rest period of 11 hours between shifts. The trade unions, however, want to keep the eight-hour-day as a point of reference but are demanding more autonomy and rights for workers to decide their working hours. In the autumn of 2016, the metalworkers’ union IG Metall launched a working time campaign that will run up to the 2017 federal elections.

Working time has also become an important issue in collective bargaining. Sectoral agreements already provide for a broad variety of working time regulations. On 13 December 2016, the Transport Union (EVG) and Deutsche Bahn reached an innovative agreement that gave workers a choice of three options: a wage rise, a reduction in weekly working time of one hour, or six more days of annual leave.

Against this dynamic background, the Federal Labour Minister Andrea Nahles (Social Democrats) released a White Paper, ‘Work 4.0’ (Arbeiten 4.0) at the end of November, which summarises the various viewpoints and sets out her ideas about how working time might be regulated in future. Working time is just one of several issues addressed in the White Paper, but is the one that has attracted the most attention, both positive and negative.

Digital Agenda

The White Paper is the minister’s contribution to the Digital Agenda 2014–2017 (PDF) launched to pave the way for the government’s ambition to make Germany ‘the digital growth motor of Europe’. The Digital Agenda aims to accelerate the expansion of the digital infrastructure and promote the digitalisation of the economy and is steered by three federal ministries: Economy (BMWi), Transport (BMVI) and Research (BMBF). The labour ministry (BMAS) has a minor role and is involved in only one of the Agenda’s seven fields of activitydigital economy and digital work.

The inclusion of the BMAS in the Digital Agenda can be attributed to the efforts of many trade unions which have campaigned for many years on the impact of digitalisation on employment and the quality of work. In response, BMAS released a Green Paper in 2014 setting out the guiding questions and in spring 2015 started a dialogue process of expert workshops, funding of research, and consultation with companies, social partners and statutory insurers.

Minister Nahles, with IG Metall Vice-Secretary Jörg Hofmann, set up a working group of experts and social partners (Platform Digitales Arbeiten). It operates under the umbrella of the national IT Summit, which is BMWi’s multi-stakeholder forum for debating the Digital Agenda. In May 2016, the working group published its recommendations on the regulation of working time (PDF). Additionally, a special ‘working time dialogue’ with the social partners fed into the draft version of the White Paper, which was presented at a conference by Minster Nahles on 29 November 2016.

Overview of the White Paper

Guiding principles

The White Paper declares its aim of contributing to ‘a German or, rather, European model of innovation within a social market democracy’. Guiding principles and objectives for policy actions are said to be social security, wage rises, integration and qualification into good jobs, safe transitions over the life course, good quality of work and co-determination/participation. While public policies set the legal framework, collective bargaining and co-determination shall ideally set the conditions at sectoral and establishment level. The Labour Minister states that she aims to strengthen industrial relations to make it possible for the social partners to reach workable compromises between employers’ needs for flexibility and workers’ desire for security and autonomy. However, the White Paper also acknowledges this may be hard to achieve.

Suggestions on the regulation of working time

On over 200 pages, the White Paper addresses the current challenges posed to employment, social security coverage, the quality and safety of work, and the structure and culture of companies. Chapters on mobile working and working time present the results of research studies and discussions on working time. An initial finding is the need for more information about the health and safety aspects of the new forms of work. For example, there is a lack of research on the health risks faced by knowledge workers because of the way they work, or the risks posed by the length of working time and commuting, and the conflict with family obligations. BMAS says it will call on the government to provide more funds for research on occupational safety and health and prevention.

BMAS has identified the following objectives:

  • facilitating transitions over the life course;
  • safety and protection of workers against detrimental working time demands and health risks;
  • more autonomy in scheduling and in choosing the location of work;
  • new incentives for new compromises between the social partners to improve work organisation.

The Minister is reluctant to legislate on these issues and would prefer to put in place a framework that will allow the social partners more room of manoeuvre.

Transitions over the life course

As already indicated in the government’s 2013 coalition programme, the Act on Part Time and Fixed Term Work (TzBfG) will be amended to include the right to work part-time for a chosen time period and to return to full-time work afterwards. Long-term working time accounts will offer more flexibility over an individual’s working life. To increase the use of long-term working time accounts by small and medium enterprises (SMEs), BMAS is considering whether the accounts might be administered by a third party such as the statutory retirement insurance.

Safety and protection

BMAS says in the White Paper that it will not amend the Working Time Act regulations on with the aim of liberalising the eight-hour-working day.

More flexibility in scheduling working time

BMAS is considering the enactment of a worker’s right (Wahlarbeitszeitgesetz) to choose the length of working time (similar to the reform of TzBfG) and making it possible for the worker to discuss with their employer or management when they work and where. It is unclear whether such an act would cover more than the right to talk about time and location. It would also include the employer’s right to talk to the worker about time and location of work. The White Paper also proposes that workers should have the right to influence where and when they work as set out in a works agreement that provides for optional working time (Wahlarbeitszeitkonzept).

Incentives for new forms of work organisation

BMAS will add opt-out regulations to the Working Time Act that make it possible to deviate from maximum working time regulations and from the statutory rest period of 11 hours between shifts under the following conditions:

  • where a collective agreement contains a clause that makes it possible to conclude a works agreement on optional working time at establishment level, and where the collective agreement defines the conditions for the works agreement and specifies which group of workers shall be covered;
  • where a works agreement on optional working time defines the conditions under which a deviation from the Working Time Act is allowed and when workers have the option to choose the length, scheduling and location of their working hours.

All hours must be stated in writing so that overtime can be calculated accurately. The employer must also conduct risk assessments and overlong working hours must be compensated for by shorter working hours in the following week.

Workers affected by a works agreement clause that makes such working time adjustments possible must individually accept the relevant clause.

BMAS suggests agreed ‘room for experiment’ for two years. Establishments would only be allowed to use this type of clause for a fixed period and only if the practice is evaluated by external researchers. The results of the evaluation would feed into research on occupational safety and risk prevention provisions.

The Minister’s concept of agreed ‘flexibility compromises’ is affected by the fact that collective bargaining coverage and works council coverage is shrinking. The White Paper anticipates major job losses in the sectors that have high coverage rates (such as the public sector and manufacturing) and job growth in those have low coverage rates (such as temporary agency work and care services). In response, the Minister states that in some sectors, such as social care, she will strengthen the collective bargaining coverage rate by extending existing agreements. For workers in establishments that do not have works councils, she suggests strengthening individual participation. The proposed act on optional working time would strengthen workers’ positions.

Views of political parties and social partners

The response to the White Paper has been mixed.

As yet there has been no reaction from the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) party. The leading opposition party, The Left, criticises the proposals for opting out from the Working Time Act, claiming that they serve only the interests of employers; the nature of the power relationship at establishment level means any works agreement will strengthen not the worker, but the employer. The Greens, also in opposition, have observed that only workers in companies covered by a collective agreement will profit from the planned working time ‘experiments’ and have called for the speedy enactment of legislation that will give workers influence over their working time and location of work.

The German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB) says that while the White Paper goes in the right direction, more should be done to strengthen the rights of workers. For the employers, the BDA said on the day that the White Paper was published that the speed of economic development left little room for experiment and that the government should aim instead at reforming current working time legislation to allow more flexibility. 

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