Austria: Latest developments in working life Q1 2019
Elections to the Chamber of Labour, a new law on Good Friday working, the rise in trade union membership and changes to the minimum income scheme are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Austria in the first quarter of 2019.
Social Democrats triumph in Chamber of Labour elections
Elections to select representatives of the governing bodies of the Chamber of Labour (AK) took place between 28 January and 10 April 2019. These elections are held separately for the nine federal provinces every five years. The AK is the mandatory labour organisation for dependent employees in Austria and all 3.7 million members were eligible to vote for the general assembly.
In seven provinces, the Social Democratic Trade Union (FSG) – affiliated to the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) – won the elections. The elections in the remaining two westernmost provinces were won by the Austrian Workers’ Federation/Christian Trade Union (ÖAAB/FCG) faction, which is affiliated with the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). The ÖAAB/FCG faction experienced losses in all provinces and also lost its absolute majority in Vorarlberg, while the FSG had losses in only one province (Salzburg) and achieved an absolute majority in three provinces. The Freedomite Employees (FA), which is affiliated to the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), ranked third in all but one province (Carinthia), where it came in second.
According to commentators, the election results can be interpreted as the negative reaction of employees to the reform measures being implemented by the coalition government, which include increasing maximum working hours and cutting social services.
- Arbeiterkammer: AK Wahlen 2019
Good Friday declared a ‘personal holiday’
On 22 January, a ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) regarding working on Good Friday triggered intense discussions.
As regulated in Article 7 (3) of the Austrian Act on Rest Periods (ARG), Good Friday is a paid public holiday only for members of the Evangelical Church and the Old Catholic Church. An employee who is not a member of either of these churches took a case to the courts, on the grounds that this constituted discrimination under the European Commission’s Employment Equality Directive (2000/78/EC).
The Austrian Supreme Court delegated the matter to the ECJ, which found that the aforementioned article constituted an act of direct discrimination on the grounds of religion and therefore infringed EU law. The ECJ called upon the Austrian federal government to change its regulation by Good Friday 2019 (19 April). If an anti-discriminatory regulation was not applied by this date, employers would have to grant employees the right to a paid holiday on Good Friday or the right to receive a public holiday surcharge (double pay) should they decide to work upon their employer's request.
The Austrian government declared that a new regulation would be drafted, which would not burden businesses or cause any employee groups to face less advantageous rulings. On 19 February, a compromise was presented by the parliamentary parties: that Good Friday should be ‘half a holiday’ for all from 14:00 onwards. This proposal received intense criticism from all sides., 
In response, the coalition government presented a new regulation on 26 February that introduced a general ‘personal holiday’ for all on Good Friday.  The new section 7a of the ARG now allows employees to claim Good Friday as a day off, although it will be deducted from their regular annual holiday entitlement. Holiday surcharges apply, should the employee choose to work on Good Friday at their employer's request.
From 2020 onwards, employers must be informed in writing three months before the chosen personal holiday. However, a special regulation of two weeks applies for 2019 to allow employees to take this year’s Good Friday as a holiday.
However, because the Good Friday holiday is regulated in a general collective agreement from 1952 and several other collective agreements, section 33a (28) of the ARG now states that those provisions are ineffective. Expert opinions are divided on whether this interference is permissible. The Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) has already announced that it will seek legal opinions on the case and bring a claim before the courts. 
Opinions on the new legislation are divided. While employer organisations are content with the solution, trade unions regret that only businesses benefit, while Protestants, Methodists and Old Catholics lose their entitlement to a day off.
- Rechtsinformationsgesetz des Bundes: Bundesrecht konsolidiert: Gesamte Rechtsvorschrift für Arbeitsruhegesetz
Trade union membership on the rise
The ÖGB increased its membership numbers for the third year in a row, with the 2018 annual increase being the highest since 1984. Around 20,000 employees joined one of the seven member unions during the year and taking withdrawals into account, a net increase of 5,757 members was seen (or an increase of 0.48%). This took the total number of members to over 1.2 million.
Four of the unions experienced an increase in member numbers, while three experienced a drop. The Union of Public Services (GÖD) saw the greatest increase at 1.56%. The largest union in terms of members (with an increase of 0.84% and over 280,000 members overall) remains the Union of Private Sector Employees, Graphical Workers and Journalists (GPA-djp). Two thirds of the new union members were female, increasing the overall share of women to 36.1%. 
- ÖGB: Der ÖGB in Zahlen
Change to minimum income scheme agreed
On 13 March 2019, the planned amendment to the minimum income scheme was agreed upon by the Council of Ministers. Despite various critical reactions to the draft bill from non-governmental organisations and other civil society organisations during the consultation periods, only small changes were implemented. According to the government’s plans, the bill is to be passed by parliament in May. This will give the regional provinces time to implement their individual laws in the second half of 2019, so that the reform can come into effect in all nine provinces on 1 January 2020.