A court ruling in favour of an engineering sector employee who challenged a tri-partite deal to extend working hours suggests other workers may have been illegally working longer hours. However the ruling is not yet final.
Collective bargaining agreements ongoing this autumn have been complicated by uncertainty over a competitiveness deal between the previous government and labour market organisations.
Among other things, the agreement introduced an additional 24 hours of work annually in a bid to lower the unit cost of labour.
Employee representatives are now questioning whether or not the measure was even legal. Last week, the Länsi-Uusimaa district court ruled that the number of working hours written into an employment contract cannot be extended on the basis of the so-called competitiveness pact.
The ruling is not yet enforceable, since the employer intends to appeal the verdict.
"Significant number" possibly working too long
The ruling involved a member of the Union of Professional Engineers. The union told Yle that it estimated that thousands of senior clerical employees might have been similarly affected. In essence it would mean that employees whose job contracts specified a certain number of working hours that were not tied to the sector’s collective bargaining agreement.
The union’s advocacy director Petteri Oksa stressed to Yle that the precise number of professionals affected is not yet known.
"We have a gut feeling based on discussions with people and it is a significant number. It could be up to half of all senior staff, which means tens of thousands of contracts," he added.
Oksa pointed out that said that the legality of the additional competitiveness-boosting hours constitutes a contract dispute between an individual worker and his or her employee.
"This is an individual matter and not a case for the union. Everyone will have to walk down this road if they want to challenge it. It’s essential for everyone to decide how important it is to them," he declared.
However Oksa said he would advise workers to discuss the matter with both employer and employee representatives if they suspect that the competitiveness pact has violated their own job contracts.
Professor: No room for doubt in law
Eastern Finland labour law associate professor Jaana Paanetoja said that there is no room for doubt in Finnish law.
"If a job contract has agreed a better deal – in this case shorter working hours – then according to our laws, no collective agreement can supersede that individual agreement," she explained.
However working hours in most labour contracts are tied to sector-based collective bargaining agreements, and which legally have the contested additional working hours legally added to them.
Last week’s court ruling will affect employers that are members of the Federation of Finnish Technology Industries. The union’s negotiations director Jarkko Ruohoniemi said that in his view, it was perfectly legal to add the competitiveness pact’s additional hours, regardless of personal job contracts. He added that there is no need to revisit the deal.
He pointed out that the matter was agreed following negotiations over the competitiveness pact with employee representatives. He noted that the workers’ union also accepted the pact along with other employee groups.
"It was specifically agreed that all working hours would be extended. It was also explicitly discussed that we have many employees with 37.5-hour work weeks and that it [longer hours] would also include them," Ruohoniemi continued.
Court ruling not final
The employer representative said that the court decision is not final and that it is likely it will go all the way to the Supreme Court. He also pointed to a labour tribunal statement handed over to the Southwest Finland district court, where another similar challenge to the competitiveness pact is being heard.
"In that case it was stated that the competitiveness pact could in fact extend everyone’s working time."
Ruohoniemi said that he didn’t believe that the case will generate enough hype to lead to a wave of new trials. He urged the union’s member companies to hold to the extended working hours, even if some employees challenge the measure.
"I would advise everyone to keep a cool head," he counselled.
Employees thinking of challenging the extended working hours in court would do well to move fast however. The claim period for issues of this kind is two years and the competitiveness pact took effect in 2017.