Icelandic employers against the currents of time
The biggest contribution of SA, the employers’ federation, to the collective bargaining in these last few months has been changing the rules surrounding working times. There are three themes: extending daytime working hours, selling out coffee breaks and reformed accounting of overtime hours. The ideas are said to be family-friendly and progressive. But what are they actually about?
In the current agreements of the SGS union federation with SA, the daytime working period is 10 hours; from 7am to 5pm. SA now proposes to extend it to 13 hours; from 6am to 7pm. That way an employer would have substantial leeway to decide at what times during the day an individual works their daytime hours. The employee would not be able to decline work in this time period and would not have a right to the overtime pay during it. To illustrate, an employer could order employees to work their 8 hour working day from, for instance, 11am until 7pm, or from 6am until 2pm, without any additional pay.
This would be a complete change in the way daytime hours currently work. The current limits to daytime working hours are intended to harmonise with other public institutions, such as public transport and school hours. The proposed changes would make it much harder for the workers to coordinate these aspects of their daily life – and they wouldn’t gain anything in return.
Buying rights from yourself
Secondly, SA has suggested that the coffee breaks should be eliminated from the calculations of daytime work. That way, they say the working week could be shortened. The idea is that the employee can leave work earlier by not using their coffee break. Of course, employees will still need to take breaks, which is why they were inscribed into collective agreements to begin with. In physically and mentally demanding jobs, such as those done by members of Efling and SGS unions, people need to take breaks. Demanding that people either buy a break or work themselves to exhaustion from the first minute to the last is not an improvement. It is an irresponsible fraud.
Messing with working hours
Thirdly, SA has put forward radical proposals about an extended accounting of overtime work, so that work over 8 hours per day would not automatically count as overtime. Their proposal even includes permission for employers to make overtime work in one month count as regular hours in the next month, and do the accounting for it annually. Further, the employers want to be able to oblige staff to take days off against the overtime hours, instead of getting them paid. Workers would always have to be prepared to work longer when it suits the employer, with no certainty on whether it will be counted as overtime or not. This kind of permission is something unheard of for decades
With these changes, we could see a 12 hour working day with no secured overtime hours or coffee breaks. This would turn the wheels of history back to the 19th century, the time of insufferable working conditions, bad quality of life and the total control of employers. “Flexibility” is a word often bandied about in propaganda, which neglects the fact that in Iceland, nobody is forbidden from working long hours – which most union members do. But today, irregular or longer hours are rewarded with higher pay.
Our minutes – a commodity that doesn’t inflate away
In short, all of SA’s proposals on working hours are cuts to our wages and conditions. SA hasn’t been prepared to talk about general wage increases in the current negotiations, except as an emollient for these cuts. Accepting that exchange would be folly. Unlike krónur, our minutes and hours don’t go up and down in value with economic tides. They are the backbone of our collective agreements. That is why the labour movement has, for a century, put up front its demands on defining and limiting working hours. The benefits that brings aren’t measured in volatile krónur, but in absolute minutes, guaranteed against booms and busts.
The goal of the labour movement in the current negotiations is to improve the condition of workers, not to diminish it. The definition of working hours is crucial to that. The unions of general, store and public workers have all proposed shorter working hours. These ideas have a broad following, as could be seen on the splendid seminar of Alda – Association for Sustainability and Democracy. The unions supported that seminar, while SA didn’t even accept its invitation. It is a regrettable contribution to this debate, to bring up longer working hours, illusions and less control for workers over their time.
Viðar Þorsteinsson, managing director of Efling – general union.