Work organisation and working time flexibility examined

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Research published in early 2004 by the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (CC.OO) sheds light on current patterns of work organisation and the flexible management of working time in Spanish companies. It finds that new forms of work organisation are not widely disseminated, except in larger firms, and the traditional 'Taylorist' model is still dominant. However, working hours have increasingly been made more flexible though methods such as flexi-time and working time accounts.

A recent survey among trade union delegates of the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) underlines the importance of the issue of work organisation (Relaciones laborales y actividad sindical en los centros de trabajo, R Alós, P Jódar and A Martín Artiles, CONC, Barcelona, 2004). The study finds that the most important innovations at the workplaces examined have been related to changes in work organisation (62%), of which the most significant involve working time. Second in importance is the introduction of new technology (57%), followed by: changes in production techniques and processes, and new products and services (55%); 'just-in-time' techniques (47%); and subcontracting (46%)

Since the early 1990s, the a key issue in the Spanish debate on work organisation has been the reorganisation of working time (ES0305203F and ES0310203F) in the context of EU integration and the priority given to increasing competitiveness. This reorganisation of working time affects areas such as the duration and distribution of working time, overtime, time off and holidays. Employers seek such forms of reorganisation, according to the research, in order to:

  • adapt production capacity to variations in demand;
  • adapt the workforce to variations in demand, whether foreseen or otherwise;
  • reduce labour costs by compensating overtime with time off (rather than a pay premium); and
  • avoiding the industrial conflict that may arise from redundancies.

The reorganisation of working time allows companies to adapt more gently to change without redundancies, so it has been found more acceptable by trade unions.

The recent CC.OO study also examines 'post-Taylorist' new forms of work organisation, finding that they have spread, but perhaps more in services than in industry. Such forms of work organisation are defined in the research as having four main characteristics: group work; reduction in hierarchical levels; decentralisation of activities; and integration of tasks. According to the study:

  • work groups are becoming more common in large companies and the operations of multinationals. In small companies, however, they are rarely used;
  • the number of hierarchical levels has been reduced in a high percentage of large companies (74%, according to a comparative study published by the European Commission in 2002 - Sources of innovation and competitiveness: national programmes supporting the development of work organisation, Peter Brödner and Erich Latniak), but rarely in small companies;
  • decentralisation has continued to spread in large companies through subcontracting of tasks and services; and
  • the integration of tasks has been introduced in a high proportion of large companies (59% according to the Commission study), but not in small and medium-sized enterprises.

The spread of new forms of work organisation has, according to the research, come up against obstacles such as: economic uncertainty; uncertainty in the cost/profit ratio; lack of institutional support; Spain's abundance of small companies, company decisions to pursue labour-intensive strategies and seek low labour costs; and a lack of training among entrepreneurs.

The CC.OO study concludes from these findings that 'Taylorist' work organisation is still very much alive in Spain and that the modifications brought by new forms of work organisation are only partial, as some other studies have found.

Working time management

A further new study from CC.OO (Estudi de condicions de treball i negociació als centres de treball, R Alós, P Jódar, A Martín Artiles, CONC, Barcelona, 2004) examines flexible management of working time. Five types are identified in Spanish collective agreements:

  • flexi-time, whereby the start and end times of the working day may vary, but a central time band is observed. In 'good practice' examples of this approach - eg La Caixa, Mirúrgia and Nestlé- there may be variations of up to two hours and the possibility of freeing some afternoons. However, flexi-time is not very common in Spain - according to the CC.OO research it affects only 9% of its members;
  • overtime 'pools', whereby overtime is accumulated and later compensated with time off. Collective agreements tend to introduce a mixed system, with overtime compensated partly with time off and partly with additional pay. The CC.OO research finds that 70% of workplaces surveyed compensate at least part of overtime with pay. Some 39% of CC.OO members do overtime and 23% of them receive extra pay for it, while only 5% are compensated with time off. In 2% of cases, members receive either pay or time off, and 9% receive no compensation at all;
  • working time pools, whereby working time is annualised, and any surplus time worked is compensated with time off or holidays at certain times of the year (for example, in the building sector and seasonal sectors such as hotels and catering). Working time accounts allowing debits and credits are also used, allowing time to be recovered or returned according to variations in work over the year. This system was introduced, for example, in the company agreement at Seat, the motor manufacturer, in May 2003 (ES0306202N and ES0310201N. In this case, the system involves the workforce moving between the different assembly lines, which leads to a need for multi-skilling and continuing training;
  • variation in the period when annual leave is taken. These schemes may or may not be linked to annualised working time and to variations in the workload. According to the CC.OO research, 53% of its members have a stable holiday period. However, 27% take holidays at different times from one year to another and 16% of members combine stable holidays with variable holidays; and
  • reductions of working time and the introduction of new periods of time off, aimed at improving work-life balance (ES0312102F). A report on collective bargaining from the Economic and Social Council (Consejo Económico y Social) finds that most collective agreements make no reference to this subject. Some make only a general declaration on equal opportunities and reiterate the provisions of the 1999 law on the reconciliation of work and family life (ES9911165F). However, a few include some improvements on the legislation. Examples include improvements in paid maternity leave, shorter working hours or time off for family reasons, measures concerning pregnancy and occupational hazards, and other measures related to family circumstances in terms of the regulation of working time, weekly time off, holidays and geographical mobility.

Tables 1 and 2 below set out the latest data on collectively agreed provisions on working time flexibility and employment issues.

Table 1. % of agreements containing special clauses on various aspects of the flexibilisation of working time, 2000 and 2002
Clauses 2000 2002
Irregular distribution of working time over the year. 45.1% 46.1%
Working time of more than 9 hours per day. 18.9% 17.0%
Considering breaks as working time in continuous working days of over 6 hours 30.1% 32.2%
Accumulation of time off in periods of 14 days 15.9% 32.2%
Shiftwork 7.1% 8.3%
Reduction of working time for night work, or working time involving danger or exposure to harmful substances - 6.8%
Daily time off of less than 12 hours in activities with split working days. - 3.6%
Specific periods for taking annual holidays - 36.5%

Source: 'Memoria sobre la situación socioeconómica de España.' (Report on the socio-economic situation of Spain), CES, 2003.

Table 2. Special clauses on employment in collective agreements, 1996-2002
Number and % of workers affected.
Clauses 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2002
Net creation of employment 181,332 (3.0%) 339,775 (4.7%) 380,238 (5.4%) 431,027 (5.5%) 439,435 (5.6%) 542,395 (7.0%)
Creation of employment through early retirement ('handover' contracts) 781,297(12.8%) 1,335,582 (18.5%) 1,367,221 (19.6%) 2,106,542 (27.1%) 1,891,584 (24.1%) 1,727,031 (22.1%)
Maintenance of employment 300,117 (4.9%) 679,935 (9.4%) 717,389 (10.3) 502,453 (5.5%) 601,315 (7.7%) 536,482 (6.2%)
Conversion of temporary into open-ended employment. 527,422 (8.6%) 717,815 (9.9%) 1,285,056 (18.4%) 2,031,445 (26.1%) 1,920,903 (24.4%) 1,526,941 (20.0%)
Other clauses on employment 2,083,976 (34.1%) 1,834,528 (25.4%) 1,458.969 (20.9%) 1,242,047 (16.0%) 952,640 (12.1%) 831,530 (10.7%)
Maximum number of temporary contracts - - - - 544,552 (6.9%) 582,948 (7.5%)
Use of temporary agency work - - - - 1,638,352 (20.8%) 1,541,157 (19.7%)
Geographical mobility 1,248,158 (20.4%) 1,631,269 (22.6%) 1,566,892 (22.5%) 2,001,691 (25.7%) - -
Functional mobility 1,283,520 (21.0%) 1,454,232 (20.1%) 1,429,612 (20.5%) 1,504,730 (19.3%) - -
Productivity incentives 1,752,468 (29.9%) 2,256,811 (31.9%) 1,794,460 (25.7%) 2,157,736 (27.7%) 2,016,505 (25.7%) -

Source: Ministry of Labour and Social Security collective agreement statistics Data quoted in CES reports on the socio-economic and labour situation.


The evidence indicates that, contrary to expectations, work organisation in Spain is still predominantly Taylorist, and this tendency may be even stronger than in the past. The main strategy of companies for gaining flexibility is through flexibilisation of working time. Curiously, the flexibilisation of working time also involves the need for workforce mobility between jobs, areas and assembly lines, which in turn requires multi-skilling and new training needs. This leads to a paradox: the combination of Taylorist organisation with multi-skilling and training.

Furthermore,, it is obvious that the flexibilisation of working time and the 'economics of time' now play a central role in work organisation, in a context of increasing competition and European economic integration. The reorganisation of working time is not only a way to reduce labour costs, but may also be a way to avoid traumatic adjustments of the workforce in companies.

Finally, the subject of working time is being transferred from sectoral collective bargaining towards company and workplace agreements. This leads to a 'microcorporatist' model which makes it difficult to coordinate trade union activities at the different levels of industrial relations. The new management of working time also favours the individualisation of industrial relations. In fact, work-life balance tends to be managed individually, and varies according to the worker's position in the company hierarchy, with greater opportunities for those in higher posts. (Antonio Martín Artiles)

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