Working hours and equal opportunities in recent company-level bargaining

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The Italian Government's October 1997 commitment to reducing the working week to 35 hours, starting from 1 January 2001, has given new impetus to the debate over the reduction of working hours. In particular, the possibility of obtaining such a reduction by law has been openly questioned. This article reviews recent developments in company-level bargaining on working hours, referring to a recent report by the Equal Opportunities Committee of the Ministry of Labour.

In late 1997, the debate on the reduction of the working week to 35 hours by law is of great topical interest in Europe - particularly in France and Italy. An issue central to this debate is the effect of a reduction in working hours on levels of employment. However, this is not the only aspect of the problem, since increasingly large numbers of workers, both male and female, are pressing for reductions in their working hours - or at any rate their adjustment - so that they can devote themselves to caring tasks. This tendency emerges very clearly from a recent report compiled by the Equal Opportunities Committee (Comitato di pari opportunità) of the Ministry of Labour, which reviews agreements on working hours signed in Italian firms over the last five years. Among the most widespread measures agreed upon are: flexible part-time contracts; "elastic" clocking-in and clocking-off times; teleworking; leave for caring purposes; the possibility of self-managing "overtime restitution" (this is applicable when workers, instead of receiving the full payment for overtime working, are entitled to take an equivalent amount of time off); and holidays.

The Prodi Government's commitment to the 35-hour week

A leading news story in October 1997 is the pledge by the Government led by Prime Minister Romano Prodi to reduce the working week to 35 hours, starting from 1 January 2001 (IT9710133N). Although this decision seems to have been a hasty compromise with the extreme-left component of the majority Government, it is in fact coherent with various choices made by the executive in recent months. In fact, in its enactment of the undertakings contained in the tripartite Pact for Employment signed with the social partners in September 1996 (IT9702201F), the Government has opted for policies to reduce and flexibilise working hours. Moreover, this commitment evidences a strategy of action shared by the Italian Government with the administration of Lionel Jospin in France, which has also recently announced its intention to legislate for a 35-hour week (FR9710169F). It also confirms the existence of a Europe-wide trend towards the reduction of working hours.

However, the reactions aroused by the Prodi Government's announcement are interesting. As in France, Italian employers and a number of academics have raised a chorus of protests and doubts respectively, expressing concern over the allegedly scant effect of the measure on employment levels, and thereby confirming that the only aspect considered in the debate is the relationship between reduced working hours and employment. Still neglected is the other crucial aspect of the problem, namely reduced working hours as a response to the need of individuals - and not only women - to reconcile work with family commitments. This demand for flexibility, also advanced by male workers, was very apparent in the measures introduced for the implementation of the Pact for Employment by law no. 196 of 24 June 1997 (IT9707308F), which encourages bargaining on reduced working hours and the introduction of part-time employment or shorter-than-normal time schedules. The law thus responds to growing demand for a reduction in the time devoted to work, and/or for arrangements more closely aligned to commitments outside work.

Bargaining over working hours: reconciling work with socio-familial commitments

A recent report by the Equal Opportunities Committee of the Ministry of Labour entitled Let's redesign time (Riprogettiamo il tempo) analyses company-level bargaining during the last five years. It shows a substantial increase in bargaining on working hours, as well as a continuing endeavour to reconcile working hours with the socio-familial commitments of both female and male workers. Indeed, although the "technical-productive requirements of firms" continue to be the paramount reason for altering working hours, the "needs of groups of male/female workers" are cited with increasing frequency.

The majority of these agreements concern part-time work, followed by agreements on "flexitime" and on "time off and leave periods". As far as part-time work is concerned, it should be stressed that the traditional "half time" is being increasingly replaced by working time models which match the diversified needs of the workforce (a case in point being the agreement at Sony on part-time work for carers for children aged up to three years) as well as the requirements of production/service delivery (as in the case of the part-time contracts introduced by the Banca Commerciale Italiana, or the "weekend contracts" at Whirlpool).

Interestingly, also in the cases of changes to working time schedules motivated by corporate requirements, agreements - in general concerning "increasing the number of shifts" or "annualising working hours" - now frequently contain compensation clauses providing explicit benefits for male and female workers. To a large extent, these benefits concern "extra reductions of hours" (up to a 31.5-hour week at Bonfiglioli), but also the entitlement of male and female workers to choose "when to make use of overtime restitution" as envisaged by new multi-period time schedules. This restitution can be effected, for example, through the introduction of innovative measures like the "hours bank" (banca delle ore) - a system that, instead of paying for overtime hours, "credits" them to a personal "hours account" from which the worker can later "draw" time off - of which a prime example is an agreement at Delta Elettronica.

Another innovative group of agreements responding to urgent social needs - needs created by the fact that it is increasingly common for all members of a family to work - are those centred on "leave for family and social reasons". This can include parental leave to look after children up to the age of six or seven (the best agreement of this sort has been signed at Techint), or leave and lighter working hours for those caring for ill or disabled family members (the most extensive forms have been introduced at Cariplo and Nordemilia).

These negotiations on the flexibilisation of working hours are flanked by discussions on "teleworking", which gives flexibility not only in time but also space. Only a few agreements have been signed on telework to date, although it is a solution of great interest to those forced to balance work with family commitments. It is also interesting to note that not only women are involved.

Commentary

The rules and practices that have promoted equal opportunities for men and women in recent years now also involve working hours. The novelty and breadth of company-level bargaining on these matters signal a major ongoing change in the workplace, where women and men are increasingly able to reconcile their work with family commitments. The growing legitimation of these needs, and concrete experience of the negotiated solution to them, are entirely new features which stand in marked contrast to the tone assumed by the debate on the 35-hour week. The concrete experience of bargaining has pointed out an important road to follow. The enormous variety of measures to reduce and flexibilise working hours introduced by company-level bargaining and their prevalent orientation towards reconciling working time with socio-familial commitments (more, indeed, than employment) suggest that: a possibly useful way to realise the occupational and social potential of reduced working hours is company-level negotiation; and, besides the technical and productive requirements of the company, the social needs of male and female workers are also becoming increasingly relevant. (Anna M Ponzellini, Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso)

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