A German industrial union set a precedent after negotiating a deal that privileges working conditions over wages
Workers in metal and electrical industries in Germany have secured the right to reduce their working time from 35 to 28 hours per week. IG Metall, the largest union in the country and one of the most powerful in the world, negotiated a deal to provide its workers better conditions in terms of work-life balance.
For next year, 2019, metal and engineering workers in the Southwest Germany can opt to work 28 hours a week for up to two years and then return to their usual working week. Evidently, employees will be paid according to the hours they work, but this temporary reduction to under 6 hours a day will allow them to combine work and family life in more flexible ways.
According to The Telegraph, the deal now covers around 900,000 workers in the state of Baden-Württemberg, but it is likely to trigger similar changes across the country and in different industries. Moreover, employees will also be given a 4.3% increase in wages from April after the union turned down a 6.8% increase in order to secure the reduction of hours.
However, this was not an easy bargain between employers and IG Metall. As Independent UK reported, “the agreement comes after IG Metall called three 24-hour strikes and workers downed tools at a number of engineering companies”.
While it has been said that working fewer hours will allow employees to care for children, elderly, or sick relatives, people could also just choose to take more time to relax, to pursue hobbies, among others.
Employers are not allowed to block individual workers from taking up the temporary reduction in working hours. In return, nonetheless, companies won the right to offer 40-hour contracts to those willing to work more.
The deal was negotiated with representatives from more than 700 companies. Some of them said their employers already offered flexible working options and the agreement would not be disruptive. Others did show some concern about the consequences that these measures may lead to, according to CNN.
The negotiations have taken place in a very particular context. Last year, the German economy grew at its fastest rate in six years, and unemployment is at its lowest since 1990. As the BBC put it, “after a 10-year period where wages have grown by an average of only 0.81% as the economy has picked up, the unions sensed it was their turn to make demands on employers”.
Furthermore, the agreements that have been achieved can set a precedent not only for the rest of the country, but also for other economies around the world. For instance, the US unemployment rate stood at a 17-year low in January 2018 and, according to the Financial Times, the latest jobs data pointed to an acceleration in wage growth. This could lead to increased bargaining power of workers in the US, similar to what has happened in Germany.
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