New collective agreements signed in commerce

The social partners have agreed pay rises of 1.7% in Austria's retail and wholesale trade for 1998. They also made a commitment to harmonise the industry's collective agreements and salary tables in 1998. The latter is likely to prove a divisive issue, perhaps more so within each side than between them.

The retailing and wholesaling pay negotiations for 1998, begun on 8 October 1997, were concluded on 31 October 1997. The Trade Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) had initially demanded a 3.5% hike in minimum rates while the Austrian Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) offered fixed amounts varying by grade and resulting, on average, in a pay rise below inflation (AT9710140N). The social partners finally settled for an average 1.7% increase in minimum salaries from 1 January 1998 and a maintenance of the absolute difference between minimum and actual salaries. Apprenticeship remuneration will be raised by 1.6%. Given that inflation is expected to run at 1.4% ,a very moderate rise in real incomes was thus achieved. Some 320,000 employees (60%-70% are women) - about 10% of the country's workforce - are directly affected by the new agreement and another 130,000 indirectly because their wage or salary settlements usually reflect the one concluded in commerce. One year previously, GPA asked for a 4.5% pay rise and eventually agreed to an average 1.95%.

In a separate protocol, the negotiators agreed to overhaul the collective agreement in the course of 1998 in order to harmonise it with changes in legislation. They further agreed to take steps in 1998 towards the unification of the sector's salary tables (see below). These agreements were expected to be signed by the social partners before 20 December 1997, but at the time of writing the latter of the two is still facing resistance.

Problems and complications

Retailing is in dire straits, and turnover will have shrunk by about 2% in real terms in 1997. The number of employees, bot part and full time is also shrinking, but only by about two-thirds of 1%. Male employment shrank by about 3% while that of women increased slightly. This has occurred is in spite of predictions in 1996 that longer shop opening hours, which became legal from 1 January 1997, would result in a net increase of 8,000 employees. For the trade union, this was a not insignificant argument in favour of a compromise on opening and, consequently, working hours. Employers now argue that without longer hours, employment would have shrunk even more than it did.

Employment earning less than ATS 3,740 gross per month - in Austria called "minor" employment, which has until now exempted from social security contributions and considered "sub-part-time" - has, however, been increasing.

There are a number of conflicts in or with individual enterprises. In the case of a major international furniture store, the works council went public with complaints about a gradual reduction of employment covered by social security and about the keeping of records of hours worked. In another case, that of a nationally known garments retailer and mail-order store, the works council believes the salaries agreed a year ago are not being paid. In still another case, a food retailer, there are complaints about regulations on Saturday afternoon working hours not being observed. All this contributes to tensions at the negotiating table.

There are also disputes about opening hours. Retailers are seeking ways of keeping their shops open on Sundays, which is currently restricted to designated tourism areas and a few other special exceptions. The latter are for provisions at railway stations and in petrol stations and, since October 1997, for stores in a shopping centre outside Vienna, provided all work on Sunday is done by the owner and her or his immediate relatives. The GPA is still protesting about the latter case (AT9712151F).

The current collective agreements

Incomes in retailing are currently fixed in five different national collective agreements, each of them covering or addressing eight different salary tables and two salary regions. The diversity is for the most part historical in origin.

The five collective agreements cover:

  • salaried employees in retailing (the general agreement);
  • services during extended opening hours;
  • inventory taking;
  • remuneration on 8 December, a legal holiday on which shops can now (since 1995) be open;
  • the weekend rest of apprentices (AT9710137N).

It is not intended to change the contents of these collective agreements in any major way, only to bring them more closely in line with existing law. This is necessary since legislation, especially on working time, has been changed in many ways.

Salary tables

There are eight different salary tables fixed by the general collective agreement on retailing, designated (a) to (h):

  1. general wholesaling and retailing;
  2. formally trained photo shop personnel;
  3. formally trained drugstore personnel;
  4. formally trained personnel in book shops, including personnel with at least three years of on-the-job training - applicable only if at least 51% of the store's turnover accrues from books, journals, newspapers or art;
  5. all salaried employees in iron and metal goods wholesaling;
  6. all salaried employees hired before 1 January 1996 in 11 named department store companies and mail-order houses;
  7. wholesaling in coal, paper, textiles, garments and shoes in Vienna; and
  8. salaried employees at tobacconists.

The companies to whom tables (e) and (g) are applicable are listed in additional protocols dating from the late 1980s. Salaries according to tables (b) to (h) are between 4% and 9% above the general collective agreement, except in the department stores where they are 13% higher (down from the traditional 15% achieved over the last three years). Starting from the settlement for 1996, the GPA has negotiated percentage increases for salary table (a) and transferred the resulting absolute increases to salary tables (b) to (h). In this way the differences between them and table (a) are gradually whittled away. The process is, however, deemed too slow to be sustainable.

Further there are two salary regions. In two provinces, Salzburg and Vorarlberg, salaries are fixed 5% above the other seven provinces. This distinction is likely to be eliminated in 1998.

Commentary

While the intention to harmonise the collective agreements is not likely to pose any great problems, the unification of the salary tables will certainly prove difficult. While employers can be expected to try and extend the general table to all salaried wholesaling and retailing employees, the trade union is likely to aim for maintaining the average salary level in the industry. This would mean raising table (a) enough to make up for what will be lost in tables (b) to (h). Further, while employers will probably want a quick changeover, the trade union is liable to bargain for gradual change. The greater danger to the negotiations, however, is likely to arise from divisions within the employers and within the trade union. The exercise will consist of complex trade-offs and is in great danger of getting mired in them. Negotiations will be eased if the forecast growth in turnover really materialises in 1998. (August Gächter, IHS)

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