Divergent attitudes towards working time and employment

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Trade unions, employers and the Spanish Government began negotiations in October 1997 on working time and employment, with a wide range of topics to discuss. The first topic is the reduction of overtime and its replacement by new contracts.

The debate on reducing and reorganising working time is becoming increasingly important in Spain. The October 1997 initiative by the French (FR9710169F) and Italian (IT9710133N) Governments to establish a 35-hour working week by law has had wide institutional and social repercussions, since trade unions, employers, the Government and the political parties have been forced to adopt a position on this subject. This climate of debate has favoured the setting up of bipartite and tripartite negotiations on working time and employment.

Position of the trade unions

The UGT and CC.OO trade union confederations have given their support to the initiatives in France and Italy because they feel that in the current employment crisis the reduction of working hours and worksharing require a decisive approach. If economic growth is to generate employment, it will be necessary to apply a general strategy that combines a reduction in working hours, a change in work organisation and an increase in productivity.

The unions' proposal is that the establishment of the 35-hour week should be adopted through the combination of European recommendations and Directives, laws of the Community countries and agreements between employers and unions. For Spain they advocate a framework law providing incentives for job creation that can be applied flexibly and progressively through collective bargaining and other forms of consultation. In any case, the unions are not prepared to wait for the reduction in working hours to be established by law: making progress in this direction is one of the objectives of collective bargaining in 1998.

Reducing overtime is another of the main trade union priorities. The unions consider that overtime must be drastically limited and replaced with recruitment on new contracts. They propose to establish a maximum daily ceiling of two hours' overtime, to compensate overtime with time off and to provide incentives for replacing overtime with permanent part-time contracts.

Position of the employers

The employers' organisation, CEOE, has strongly rejected a general reduction in working hours by law without a reduction in wages. In its opinion a measure of this type not only does not create employment but actually destroys it, since it involves higher labour costs and lower competitiveness for companies.

CEOE believes that attention should be focused on making working hours more flexible rather than reducing them. Only in the framework of flexible management of working hours can a reduction and redistribution of working time be considered. Moreover, the opportunities for reducing working hours and creating employment depends on each sector and each company. The employers are thus in favour of approaching the issue through collective bargaining, without ruling out the possibility of other forms of institutional support to provide incentives for this line of action.

Government and opposition parties

The Government has shown a clearly sceptical attitude towards the debate on the 35-hour week. In its opinion, the reduction in the working week is an issue for the social partners, and in Spain there is a sufficiently flexible labour relations framework for unions and employers to deal with it. The role of the Government, on the other hand, is to create a favourable framework to promote job creation: from this viewpoint the Spanish job creation model - based on economic growth, control of government expenditure and inflation - stands in opposition to the French and Italian initiatives. The Government, however, has not remained outside the debate, since it has come out clearly in favour of part-time contracts and against reducing working hours.

The opposition parties have also formulated proposals in this area. The Socialist Party (PSOE) is in favour of reducing working hours, provided that this is approached in a decentralised way and through agreement between the social partners, whereas United Left (IU) has drawn up a proposal similar to the French one.

First round of negotiations

This climate of debate has favoured the start of negotiations between trade unions, Government and employers on working time and employment.

One of the commitments that trade unions and employers adopted in the 1997 intersectoral agreement on collective bargaining (ES9706211F) - one of the three "April agreements" - was to begin a process of negotiation on the management, duration and redistribution of working hours in order to foster job creation and improvements in the functioning of companies. The negotiations got under way in mid-October 1997, with the setting up of a group on working hours and working time composed of representatives of UGT, CC.OO and CEOE.

Hardly a month later, negotiations began between unions, employers and the Government to prepare a new agreement on the distribution of working time. The first item on the agenda is the limitation of overtime and the promotion of permanent part-time contracts, a proposal that has initially achieved a high degree of consensus. Other formulas for distributing working hours and job creation that have not yet been clearly defined will be put forward later.


In Spain the employment crisis has been far worse than in any other country of the European Union, but the discussion on working time and employment has been of little importance up to now. The first steps that have now been made are positive, especially in a favourable economic situation such as the present one.

This topic is without doubt complex. Even limiting overtime - a proposal that initially met with a high degree of support from the Government and the social partners - is difficult to implement in companies. It must not be forgotten that overtime has been a key instrument in labour management: for companies it is a convenient way of making working hours more flexible whilst for workers it is an additional source of income that in many cases is considered necessary to compensate for low wages. This is yet another case in which the distribution of working time is closely linked to the distribution of income.

Though limiting overtime does not have a great impact on employment levels, it is of great importance for the development of this debate. The extent to which bargaining in this area proves successful and its degree of penetration into companies will indicate whether bolder measures of work distribution - which will require greater social and institutional support - will be possible in the future. (Maria Caprile, CIREM Foundation)

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