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12 February 2016

German union campaign to tackle employers’ ‘every-man-for-himself’ strategy

Over the last twenty years, German unions at company level have come under harsh pressure from employers who demanded major concessions to preserve the competitiveness of German manufacturing industry. In return for preservation of core employees’ interests, some company unions agreed on the hiring of temporary agency workers with fewer rights than their permanent colleagues. In the long run, these concessions were detrimental to the workforce as a whole. Such is the main message of a recently published ETUI Policy Brief.

The years 1996 to 2008 saw a fourfold increase in the numbers of workers employed on agency contracts in the German metal sector, according to field research findings of Chiara Benassi, lecturer in Human Resource Management at Royal Holloway, University of London.

In an ETUI Policy Brief issued in mid-February, Ms Benassi points out that this situation results from the combination of decentralisation of collective bargaining to company level and the labour market reforms undertaken in the early 2000s by Gerhard Schröder’s left-wing government.

Under adverse prevailing conditions, many workers’ delegations agreed on the inclusion in company-level agreements of provisions that reinforced segmentation between permanent and contingent workers in terms of working time (overtime, unsocial working hours) and pay (no access to company-level bonuses and benefits).

It was some years before unions realised that the stronger presence of contingent workers in companies was being exploited by employers to exert additional pressure on core workforces. The unions became aware also that this situation had considerably weakened their own mobilisation capacities.

This was the starting point for a campaign on agency workers conducted by the metalworkers’ union IG Metall. Using the slogan ‘Same work same wage’, the campaign was aimed at raising public awareness of the situation of agency workers who were treated as second-class workers; at the same time it sought to affiliate this largely under-unionized category of workers.

The IG Metall campaign produced positive results: in 2011, over 1,200 companies had signed collective agreements guaranteeing better working conditions for agency workers and by 2012 over 50,000 agency workers had joined the union. In the collective bargaining arena, an industry-wide agreement on equal pay for agency workers was signed in September 2010.

To find out more:

Chiara Benassi, Extending solidarity rather than bargaining concessions: the IG Metall campaign for agency workers, ETUI Policy Brief, February 2016

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