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"Part-time is a result of lacking equality”

"Part-time is a result of lacking equality”

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

The high number of involuntary part-timers is a result of how we value women's work, says Annelie Nordström, chairwoman at Kommunal, the Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union. The union has been fighting for the right to full-time employment for 30 years. It's been an uphill battle, and since the economic crisis hit in 2009 it's been even harder.

"The right to full-time employment has fallen by the wayside as an issue. In a time of economic crisis, focus falls on male industry workers in full-time unemployment, despite the fact that women are also hit. We notice that while industry lays people off during an economic crisis, the health sector lowers its employment rate," says Annelie Nordström. 

There's no stopping her when she starts talking about the right to full-time work and what this means for gender equality. This is what she burns for and she rates it one of the most important issues when it comes to women's rights. Part-time means lower wages and as a result lower pensions. It means fewer opportunities to develop through work, a deterioration of health and in case you do become ill you end up with less sickness benefit. Many families do chose for the mother to work full-time, but these figures often hide gender inequalities. The person who earns the least stays at home with the children, and many women get stuck in that role. 

Women's work valued less

Nordstrom"The high number of women working part-time is a result of the reduced value employers put on women's work. And many men want to keep women at home so they can take the main responsibility for the family's need. This means part-time work is a direct result of a lack of equality in the home," says Annelie Nordström.

Some sectors use part-time work more than others, voluntary or involuntary. In Sweden, just like in the rest of Europe, these are schooling, elderly care and handicap care. Around half of Kummunal's more than 500,000 members work part-time. One in four of these are so-called involuntary part-time workers. The rest seem to chose to work part-time, although Annelie Nordström doubts this is the case. Sweden's unemployment insurance funds allow part-time workers to take out unemployment benefits for 75 days before they have to decide whether to take 100 percent unemployment or not take any benefit at all. This means those who want to increase their hours get lost in the statistics.  

It is also important to understand, she says, that this is not only about pure half or three quarter-time workers. Part-time these days can mean many things. Employers calculate the number of hours they need to fill, and this can result in some odd working hour percentages.

"Nowadays split shifts are becoming more common, which means you go in to work a few hours in the morning and then return to work more hours in the evening. This creates major problems. Family life suffers, but it also means women work when the pressure is greatest. As a result, many cannot face going full-time," says Annelie Nordström.

Good local examples

The Kommunal union has approached the problem in many different ways over the past 30 years. Demands for legislation have led nowhere and the right to full-time work has been pushed repeatedly during many years of wage negotiations but the answer remains no. The union has presented reports which show how more full-time jobs are beneficial to society, despite what employers often think. 

The union has offered to help see through the transformation of jobs from part-time to full-time. Politicians on a national level have hesitated to legislate or create binding agreements. Now there is a drive to get politicians to push through an agreement on the right to full-time employment in public sector agencies. The latest wage negotiation also resulted in a working group which will study local solutions to working hours in cooperation with Sweden's municipalities and county councils. 

"150,000 health workers will have retired by 2030. At the same time young people's interest for health sector college courses is falling dramatically. This is a very negative trend. We must create attractive jobs with good salaries and good working conditions to make it interesting to work within what will be one of the really big labour markets of the future," says Annelie Nordström.

The will and courage to support the right to full-time employment varies locally. Some municipalities have included the right to full-time employment in their working hours agreements, while others have introduced the right to full-time employment within the health and care sectors.

Nynäshamn municipality has long been working to change part-time jobs into full-time ones within the health sector. Municipal section leader Birgitta Alkvist says they have been contacted by many municipalities from elsewhere in Sweden looking for information on how they've managed to turn so many part-time jobs into full-time - a total of nearly 100 health sector posts in four years.

"The right to full-time employment is the greatest equality issue there is. Women need and should have a right to their own income," says Birgitta Alkvist.

The need for good basic staffing

She started working for the right to full-time work when she became leader of the Kommunal union's Nynäshamn chapter in 1995. It's been slow work. Employers have feared it would cost too much and complicate the running of the health sector. But in 2007 one union member had had enough. Together with Birgitta Alkvist she went to see the head of the municipal executive committee and documented how the municipality was spending 45 million Kronor (€5m) on temporary staff. 

"That doesn't make sense," he said and immediately started the work to create full-time posts for all.

The municipality drafted in help from Paula Liukkonen, associate professor in business economy and an expert in the economy of staffing. She trained union representatives and examined each workplace's economy to see how to make space for full-time posts. 

"You need knowledge and good mathematical skills when you turn part-time jobs into full-time. In order to succeed you need a good level of basic staffing," says Birgitta Alkvist. 

The solution was to give all health sector employees so-called 'flow' time, even those originally working full-time. The idea is for workers to do the majority of their work in one location while the rest of the time can be spend in other departments.

There was some opposition in the beginning but now most people seem to find it interesting to see other parts of the sector. Nor has it incurred and extra costs for the municipality - quite the opposite, says Birgitta Alkvist.

Yet social authorities are now cutting costs and that could harm this development. It makes it harder to offer full-time positions to all who want it. Work is becoming more stressful and within elderly care tasks are getting harder because the population is older and sicker than ten years ago. Fewer employees want to jump from one workplace to the other. 

"The solution is to reduce the hours of a full-time job. After all it is hard to jump from working on the floor to performing white-collar tasks," says Birgitta Alkvist.

The Hofors model

Hofors was another municipality which was quick to implement full-time rights for all. Sven Fernlund Skagerud was a driving force there, and today he turns part-time jobs into full-time ones for Avesta municipality. His work has also caught the eye of many other municipalities, and he often travels to give talks on the issue. Avesta has managed to change from having 40 percent part-time jobs to having 100 percent full-time jobs. 

Their secret is to make use of their own staff rather than temps. Just like in Nynäshamn this work has been dependent on the solidarity between part-time and full-time workers. The full-time workers must accept that part of their jobs become so-called flexible, which means they can be moved to a different workplace for periods of time. 

Skagerud"Some oppose this. Bosses are worried about their budget, unions might not have enough knowledge about this system and full-time employees must change their routines and show solidarity with those who take on more work," says Sven Fernlund Skagerud.

Clear decisions are needed to turn part-time jobs into full-time, he says. Politicians must act very transparently and be very decisive. But if you see this through you emerge with your honour intact. Hofors began work on this back in 2003 and has experienced lower sick leave figures and happier workers who feel they are more in control of their own economy. Part-time is without a doubt a question of gender equality, says Fernlund Skagerud.

"If men had been staffing the home-help service there would be no part-timers there," he says.

Facts about part-time work

Part-time work is on the increase in Europe for both men and women according the fresh report 'Part- time work in the European Union' published by The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. It's an EU Commission initiative and one of the aims is to encourage a debate on part-time work. 

Women still make up a clear majority of part-time workers - they're four times more likely to be working part-time than men. The report points out the major differences between European countries as well as the different causes of part-time work - such as a general acceptance of part-time work or the lack of rules and legislation. The fact that women tend to be working part-time could also be a result of poor childcare facilities. 

The report also highlights the difference in working conditions between full-time and part-time workers. The part-timers don't have the same opportunity to perform complicated tasks, they are more pessimistic about their possibilities to develop their skills in the workplace and they stand a slimmer chance to gain further training or education at work. 

Around one in five of all EU workers work part-time. The number is higher in the Netherlands and in some of the Nordic countries at between 25 and 30 percent. This could be explained by an increase in part-time work where the employment rate is very high. In all European countries part-time work is most commonly found in the health sector, schooling and social care. 2009 figures show the Netherlands with most part-time workers, followed by Sweden where 28 percent of the workforce is in part-time employment. 

36 percent of women in the Nordic countries work part-time. More than half of all female workers in the Faroe Islands work part-time, in Norway 43 percent do and in Sweden 41 percent. Finland stands out from the crowd. 18.5 percent of women there work part-time and only 8.3 of men. 

All the Nordic countries have seen an increase in the number of part-time workers since the year 2000, except Iceland which has seen a reduction of the number of part-time working women. 


Nordic Statistical Yearbook 2010 

Part- time work in the European Union 



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