San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Flexible Labor Law Debate Continues

WHILE the legislative debate over whether to makeCosta Rican labor laws more flexible – allowing for 12-hour shifts and three-day weekends – has been shelvedfor now, advocates and opponents are urging resolutionof the question immediately.Business organizations continue to work with theMinistry of Labor and legislators advocating a bill thatwould allow companies to implement “flexible” workschedules as a way of promoting foreign investment andincreasing jobs.Opponents, on the other hand, say the issue is beingmanipulated to the financial benefit of internationalcompanies and the detriment of workers.THE Association of Labor Promotion Services (ASEPROLA), a labor-rights advocacygroup, last month launched in Costa Ricaits Central American-wide campaignagainst “flextime.”Ariane Grau, a coordinator for theorganization, calls flextime a step backwardin the fight for labor rights.“After the Industrial Revolution, it wasa human-rights conquest to get the workdaylimited to eight hours,” she said.In Costa Rica, the workday is limitedto eight or 10 hours, depending on theposition and industry. After that, employeesare paid overtime – 1.5 times their normalpay. The workweek is limited to 48hours for daytime jobs.The proposed flex-time law wouldallow companies to hire people for 12-hour shifts without paying overtime, andgive them three-day weekends instead.Despite the proposed law’s name, participationin flextime shifts would not be voluntaryfor employees.ADVOCATES of the law maintain itis necessary to guarantee Costa Rica’sinternational competitiveness, attract foreigninvestment, and promote job creation.“We are worried,” said José Salas, anadvisor on the development of human capitalfor the Costa Rican Chamber ofIndustries. “We have companies that arewaiting for this bill to get passed. They donot want to set up more efficient systemswithout the certainty of it passing. Butthey are not going to wait forever.”Salas said some companies have alreadymoved to El Salvador and Honduras, wherethe workweek is limited to 44 hours butthere is no limit on daily shifts.The Chamber of Industries is joined inits concerns by the Costa RicanInvestment Promotion Agency (CINDE)and the Union of Private-Sector Chambersand Associations (UCCAEP).While they have the support of LaborMinister Fernando Trejos, they have seenlittle legislative activity surrounding theflextime bill, which the Labor Ministryhelped write.VARIOUS bills to reform Costa Rica’slabor code and allow flexible work scheduleshave bounced around the LegislativeAssembly for three years.In its latest form, the bill would allowcompanies to establish schedules ofextended shifts, in which employeeswould work weeks of four 12-hour days,followed by three or four days off.Flexibility would also be permitted onan annual level, allowing employers toestablish on an annual calendar six-hourshifts when the market demand is low, and10-hour shifts when demand is high.Neither the “4/3” nor the annual flexibilitywould exceed the present legal maximumsof 12-hour workdays and 48-hourworkweeks for diurnal workers and 36-hour workweeks for nocturnal workers.Salaries would be based on a regular48- or 36-hour workweek schedule.THE goal is to provide these schedulesto companies that need flexibility foroptimum efficiency, particularly in production,explained Eugenio Pignataro,UCCAEP director of social development.Companies interested in using flexibleschedules under the new law would still berequired to request permission from theMinistry of Labor, providing evidence oftheir need, he emphasized.Twenty-five companies have alreadyworked or are working under these typesof schedules in a pilot program started fiveyears ago to evaluate the concept ofextended schedules. Under the pilot plan,businesses must also solicit permissionfrom the Labor Ministry, presenting theirreasons for wanting flexibility.Computer chip-making giant Intel,Banco Popular and companies in graphics,textiles and beverage packaging havealready taken advantage of the pilot program,Salas said.“The (ministry) decisions certainlytake into account job safety,” he added.“For example, 12-hour shifts would not beallowed in a lumberyard, where there isthe possibility of serious accidents ifsomeone is working tired.”WORKER safety, particularly in factories,is one of the primary concerns ofASEPROLA, which is supported by atleast 20 Costa Rican organizations such asteachers’ unions, banana workers’ associationsand women’s groups.Research over the years has shown thatworking for more than eight hours, particularlyin the type of monotonous, factorylabor that would be most affected by thechanges, is damaging to physical health,Grau said.“This is why overtime is allowedonly occasionally, and it is voluntary,”she said.ASEPROLA is also concerned abouteffects on working-class families, whowould have limited free time during theworkweek, Grau said. They may use theirthree days off to get another job and workeven more, she continued.Proponents view this as an advantage.The working class would also be hithardest by the annual flexible labor,according to opponents.Currently during times of high production,employees are paid overtime. Theywould lose this under a revised schedule,in which they would work the same longhours, Grau said.“It has serious effects on salaries,” shesaid. “Plus these people are living day today. They are not going to buy two boxesof milk during high production and saveone for the time of year when there is lowproduction.”Flex labor proponents view things in adifferent light. Seasonal employees mayaspire to be full-time employees under thenew system, according to CINDE.The system would also allow employeesmore free time to relax or continuetheir studies, according to proponents.Although government proposals weremade last year to offer flexible, “4/3”schedules to the public sector as a way toreduce traffic and dependence on oil, theyare not included as part of any bill.WHILE not a requirement under theCentral American Free-Trade Agreementwith the United States (CAFTA), mostconsider labor flexibility a part of the tradepact’s complementary agenda, whichwould allow Costa Rica to take full advantageof the agreement.For now, the proposal remains buriedin the assembly’s Social AffairsCommission. Discussion and vote of thebill has been suspended, and is now“almost last on the list,” according toLibertarian Movement legislator PeterGuevara, who supports the bill.

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