Working time talks often postponed in 1998 bargaining round

In the autumn 1998 Austrian collective bargaining round, negotiations on working time issues have frequently being postponed. Part of the reason is that developments over the last 10 years have made the issue very complex. A reduction in normal working time, except in highly specific circumstances, can now be negotiated seriously only when taking into account the context of overtime and "surplus hours".

Working time issues in Austria have risen to some prominence in 1998, as illustrated by: the ongoing "tug-of-war" over Sunday work (AT9811111N) and public holiday work (AT9811113N); the perennial theme of working time flexibility; the slowly simmering issue of reductions in working time; and, in commerce and in restaurants and hotels, the issue of minimum daily working hours (AT9705111F). Working time matters have featured in the autumn 1998 collective bargaining round, but with relatively few results and frequent postponements.

Paper industry

On 4 December 1998, the paper and cardboard-making industry agreed to reduce working time for workers involved in fully continuous shift production from 38 to 36 hours per week without a proportional reduction in the monthly wage or salary. The agreement had been preceded by almost two months of wrangling between the industry section of the Austrian Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ) on the one hand, and the Chemical Workers' Trade Union (Gewerkschaft der Chemiearbeiter) and the industry section of the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA) on the other (AT9810107F). This sectoral agreement on working time does not become effective immediately. Enterprises have until the end of 2001 to implement it. Even then, given the consent of the works council, they can take another six to 12 months. In any case, the 36-hour limit is already in force for about 80% of the workers in continuous shift production in paper-making due to works agreements signed over the last few years. However, there have been signs that the future of the works agreements might be in the balance as the paper-making industry is in a state of restructuring, with companies continually being bought and sold. The trade unions are really aiming at a 35-hour week, but have now consented not to raise the topic again until 2001. The same goes for flexibility.

After mineral oils, paper is the second industry to settle for a 36-hour working week in fully continuous shift production. Printing also has a sectoral agreement setting 36 hours as the norm.

At the same time, minimum wages and salaries in the paper sector were raised by 2.6%, against the 3.7% the trade unions had demanded. Actual wages and salaries are being raised by 2.2%, or by 2.0% in cases where management and works council agree to distribute another 0.5% of the wage or salary bill to designated groups under the terms of "distribution clauses" (AT9801155F). The wage increases become effective on 1 January 1999 for 10 months, whilst the salary increases are backdated to 1 October 1998 for 12 months. Together they cover 10,000 employees.

Metalworking

The metalworking sector is the linchpin in setting standards across the whole of manufacturing. Whilst working time was mentioned as an issue before negotiations started in metalworking, it was ultimately decided to postpone the issue in favour of higher wages now (AT9810108N). It is currently envisaged to deal with working time as a package. This would cover opportunities for part-time work, overtime and "surplus time" (that is, hours worked between the agreed working time norm and the legal limit of 40 hours per week). Here, as in construction, it is mainly the overtime issue that will need to be addressed. A survey in September 1998 revealed that surplus and overtime hours during the current economic upswing had increased by 20% amongst men and by 40% amongst women, in comparison with 1995 when economic conditions were more depressed. One quarter of employees work overtime every week.

Commerce

When the negotiations began in commerce on 15 October 1998, the GPA commerce section placed on the agenda a working time reduction from 38.5 to 35 hours a week. The aim was not to achieve the reduction all in one go but to set a timetable for an incremental reduction leaving monthly salaries untouched. One month later, little more than a salary increase was agreed and working time had all but disappeared from the agenda (AT9811112N). One reason is the union's simultaneous demand to fix a minimum daily working time of four hours in an attempt to squeeze employment only partially covered by social security out of the sector.

Satisfaction amongst employees

A survey conducted in October 1998 indicated that 93% of private sector employees were satisfied with their current working time arrangements. Some 5% of full-time employees said that they would prefer to work part time, and 14% of part-time employees said that they would prefer to work full time. At the beginning of 1997, by comparison, 11% and 8% respectively wanted to switch. Of women working full time, 10% would now prefer part time, and 13% of women working part time would like to switch to full time. For the first time the latter percentage is greater than the former. Of women working part time, 61% stated that their income was either insufficient or just barely enough to cover expenses.

Commentary

With the autumn pay round practically concluded, working time emerges as a complex and touchy issue. The trade unions have generally aimed at deals that trade flexibility for reduced hours. This is a feasible strategy in manufacturing but it offers little scope in commerce or other services. Here employers, relying on unskilled part-time women and students, have already attained a remarkable degree of flexibility by employing many for short hours. In this area trade unions feel pulled both ways - towards working time reductions for the full-time workers and towards a minimum daily working time for part-time workers. The latter has long existed for restaurants and hotels but is increasingly under attack by employers.

In manufacturing, on the other hand, there are next to no part-time employees. Here the issue for employers is to cut costs by redistributing working time across the year without having to pay overtime premia. The ski manufacturers, for instance, wish to employ workers for 50 hours per week during the summer but for only 30 hours during the winter when distributors and retailers are stocked up and demand on manufacturers is slack. The 50 hours can currently be worked only if working time averages out to the agreed normal level of working time over a reference period of eight weeks. The employers' demand would require an averaging period of 52 weeks that would, in turn, require legal change. It was possible for the paper industry deal to be struck because of the very specific circumstances imposed by the production technology involved and because of the previous works agreements concluded by large manufacturers. (August Gächter, IHS)

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