Textiles agreement provides for working time flexibility

In early 1998, a sectoral agreement on flexibility in the management of working time was concluded in Portugal's textiles industry. The deal followed negotiations in which the social partners had some difficulty coming to an understanding on issues involving both the reduction of the working week to 40 hours (as required by law) and the organisation of working time. The key provisions of the eventual agreement include reducing the working week to five days, providing for weekend shifts, and introducing worker availability for emergency intervention during break periods.

Law No. 21/96, dated 23 July 1996 - the "40-hour week law" - provided that from December 1996 weekly working hours in Portugal should be shortened by two hours towards the limit of 40 hours, and that no enterprise could exceed the 40-hour limit - without loss of pay for workers - by December 1997 (PT9712154F). The law prompted many conflicts and controversies in 1997, particularly over its application in the textiles, shoe manufacturing, and hotel sectors. In textiles, sector-level collective bargaining - in which the social partners had some difficulty coming to an understanding on issues involving both the reduction of the working week and the organisation of working time - resulted eventually in an agreement, published in the Boletim do Trabalho e Emprego on 8 April 1998. The settlement contains some innovative and unexpected features, such as the following:

  • normal working time cannot exceed 40 hours per week between Monday and Friday, thereby eliminating work on Saturdays from normal hours;
  • work schedules may be varied around an average working time figure over a six-month reference period (the law provides for a minimum reference period of four months);
  • the creation of special shifts that will permit working from Saturday to Monday, on public holidays, or during other workers' vacation periods. In these shifts, the normal daily work period cannot exceed 10 hours and the total work period may not exceed 12 hours;
  • the establishment of maximum periods of up to six hours' continuous work without a break (Law No. 21/96 provides for a five-hour maximum, which can be increased to six through negotiations.) Workers have the right to a half-hour break, which can be organised on a rotating basis; and
  • the introduction of the idea that a worker is in a situation of so-called "hetero-availability" (heterodisponibilidade) - ie available for emergency intervention - during the half-hour break.

Social partners' positions

The textiles agreement was negotiated by the Federation of Textile, Woollens, Garment, Shoe Manufacturing, and Fur and Leather Workers' Unions (Federação dos Sindicatos dos Trabalhadores Têxteis, Lanifícios, Vestuário, Calçado e Peles de Portugal, FESETE- an affiliate of CGTP) and other unions, along with the Portuguese Textile and Garment Association( Associação Portuguesa de Têxteis e Vestuário, APT) and other textiles employers bodies, which represent home furnishings, knitwear, and woollen goods. These sectors cover 99,305 workers, 11.9% of Portugal's industrial workforce. In these sectors, according to the most recent figures available from 1995, the average working week for those covered by collective agreements was 43.1 hours for cottons and knitwear, 41.4 hours for woollens, and 42.2 for rug-making ("Quadros de Pessoal - 1995" Departamento de Estatísticas, MTS (1997)) It should also be mentioned that these workers may be covered by other agreements, in accordance with the principle of trade union pluralism.

According to FESETE, the new agreement has brought about some innovation regarding work organisation, making it more flexible, while the provisions on a new weekend or holiday shift are intended to respond to a reality that has already been common practice for some time. The new organisation of the working week enables machinery to be in operation for 40 hours, thereby increasing machine utilisation and output and, say the unions, creating more wealth to be distributed more equitably.

The unions have been able to negotiate working weeks as short as 38 hours in some company-level agreements in the industry.

According to leading employers, the textile industry - in contrast to the garment industry - is a sector marked by intensive and fairly automated work. By increasing machine utilisation, a factory can function 40 hours between Monday and Friday. Given that the nature of the work means that workers' responsibilities are essentially related to supervision, and that during the break period they will still be available to respond to any emergency situation, it has been possible to achieve a reduction in working time, although not without some increased cost to the companies. The creation of a new weekend work shift, with its capacity to generate more production time, will permit greater equipment utilisation that should offset this increase in costs .

Commentary

According to legal specialists like Joaquim Damas ("Reduction of length of working time and the adaptation of work schedules under Law No. 21/96", Questões Laborais, 9 (10/1997)) although the current working time law regarding working time (Law No. 21/96) contains many "fall-back" clauses that can be bypassed through collective bargaining, it does set maximum limits on the length of the working day (eight hours) and the working week (40 hours). It also establishes models for the flexibility of working hours - that is, goals and conditions for the organisation of working time (over a reference period of four months or more).

The solutions found in the textiles industry represent the negotiation of flexibility of work schedules, permitting daily and weekly variations in the organisation of working time within certain limits. The reference unit for working time is no longer the week or the day, but rather a period of six months: an eight-hour day may go as high as 10 hours and a 40-hour week as high as 50 hours. as long as the average is respected over the reference period. For shiftworkers, the normal shift length is eight hours, except at the weekends when it is 10 hours.

Law No. 21/96 brings to light, according to Dr Damas, two other issues, which are the definition of "actual working time" and the continuity of working time (PT9703110N). The law recognises, explicitly and implicitly, that there are different types of interruption of work activity: interruptions in which the worker is completely free from work responsibilities; and interruptions in which the worker's normal tasks are suspended, but where he or she must still be available to respond to a possible emergency situation that could interfere with the production process ("hetero-availability"). The textile sector agreement sets out the results of a consensus between the trade union organisations and the employers on this point, stating that, during their half-hour rest break, the workers are in a "hetero-available" situation, and are thus available to intervene.

According to the trade unions, avenues have been opened for reducing weekly working time to 36 hours for shiftworkers, organised in four shifts, thus allowing for the creation of an extra shift. Experience seems to have shown unions that working time flexibility can lead to job creation and better use of equipment. This in turn could lead to increased wealth and efficiency in the sector, especially in terms of meeting deadlines.

Negotiations on qualifications, functional content of work, career paths, and lowering the retirement age are being considered for inclusion in upcoming bargaining in textiles.

The debate over increasing flexibility of working time in the textile industry is far from over, with discussion on short rest breaks still open. Discussion in Parliament on the transposition of the EU Directive on working time, which covers this issue, is eagerly anticipated (PT9712156N). (Maria Luisa Cristovam, UAL)

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