The 2012/12/20 at 08:51
Marie Luginsland, in Germany
At the start of December, to the great relief of unions and employers’ representatives, the government gave the green light to the lengthening of Kurzarbeit (“short time”) from six to twelve months. This measure consists in subjecting employees to partial unemployment during a slowdown of activity, with salaries being covered at a 60 % rate by the national employment agency. In 2008 and 2009, at the height of the crisis, 1.5 million persons benefited from this measure over a 24-month period, and over 400,000 were thus spared from retrenchment.
The situation today is however very different from the previous one: the federal government has insisted on the fact that these are preventative measures and in no way wishes to waken suspicions regarding economic slowdown. However, unions and employers’ federations have had every reason not to release pressure since the start of autumn. “The government’s decision is decisive and provides a security instrument for businesses in a volatile context,” enthuses Berthold Huber, Secretary General of the metallurgy union IG Metall. Indeed, certain branches are already affected by the morose situations of their European neighbours. The automobile sector is the first to see its order books thin out, as well as its lists of suppliers and subcontractors. In this way, Opel has already announced partial unemployment for the end of the year, Bosch has also taken recourse to this measure in some of its plants, while ThyssenKrupp, hit full in the face by a drop in automobile orders, already subjected over 2,000 employees to the measure in August this year. At the truck manufacturer MAN, 5,300 employees will not be returning to work after the Christmas holidays, and this break may well stretch for a few months. In November, 2,300 businesses took partial employment measures, affecting 46,400 persons.
Paradoxically, the recourse to this measure does not particularly alarm employees. Kurzabeit even enjoys a positive image in public opinion. Its favourable impact on crisis management has also left an impression, and it is largely accepted as a means to make working hours more flexible in response to an uncertain economic situation. For businesses waiting to see what will happen and avoiding any bets on 2013, this measure allows them, as in 2008/2009, to preserve their staff members and their skills.
A means for safeguarding savoir-faire, Kurzabeit allows staff to become immediately operational as soon as the situation picks up, as was the case at the end of 2009 and the start of 2010. Today, at a time when car manufacturers are setting aside their prognostics for 2013, Kurzarbeit avoids premature redundancies. Berlin understands what is at stake and it is no accident if authorities have yielded so quickly to the requests of unions and employers’ federations. At the brink of an electoral year, the government of Angela Merkel cannot afford to allow the number of unemployed persons to exceed the three million mark.
While it is considered to be a regulatory instrument and a measure to compensate for the economic situation’s decline, Kurzarbeit does not meet with the approval of all businesses. The VDMA, the confederation of businesses in the mechanical construction industry, that backs global growth of its production in 2013 of 2 %, considers that this is a “last-ditch means to protect employees and it in no way is a response to the cyclical fluctuations of certain branches”.
Similarly, within the automobile sector, the partial unemployment measure has not won over everyone. Most manufacturers are introducing other instruments to react to the fluctuations of order books. Volkswagen, for example, has announced that the Christmas holidays of employees will be extended by three days. This is no free gift, for the forced holidays will be deducted from annual holidays or overtime accounts. Its subsidiary Porsche has recently signed an agreement, with social partners, on a new system for flexible working hours. By the end of the first quarter of 2013, weekly working hours will be reduced from 35 to 34 hours in the production sector. In the development sector on the other hand, all engineers will work up to 40 hours per week if so required, a duration that was only authorised for 18 % of them until now. In exchange, the management allows all employees to adapt their working hours to their personal situations, with the possibility of working part-time for two years in order to look after young children or else care for elderly parents.