“What else should Wibra have done?” The judge in Zutphen is putting things on edge. “The shops were closed. You can fold underpants three times, but at some point they will be neatly on the shelves.”
The FNV trade union has just argued in court that Wibra decided “unilaterally” at the end of last year to have employees work fewer hours. In mid-December, due to a new lockdown, all non-essential stores closed, including the branches of the bargain clothing chain. The judge is therefore critical of the trade union’s argument: did Wibra employees work less because the company wanted to, or was it a result of government-imposed rules?
It is one of the points of contention on Monday in the court of Zutphen. The central question at hand: can Wibra allow its employees to make up for missed hours in the coming months, while the chain also received wage support from the government? The union has filed summary proceedings because it believes that the chain eats from two sides.
This is what Wibra wants: that employees will work the hours in the coming months that they were unable to work earlier this year due to the lockdown.
Like many other retail chains, Wibra works with fixed and flexible forms of employment. Permanent employees have certainty about a monthly salary for an average number of hours, say: twenty hours a week. One week they work less hours. In busy weeks, for example during the holidays, more hours. In this way they build up ‘plus’ and ‘minus’. During the last lockdown, employees built up minutes, because then there was less work due to the forced closure.
Save on temporary workers
At least, that’s what Wibra thinks. According to FNV lawyer Mandy Dielemans, the corona crisis is an “exceptional situation”. And so, she pleads in court: “There should have been no minutes written at all.”
According to the union, employees who now have to work extra hours will face both personal and financial difficulties. Some will have to incur extra costs for childcare, for still others the extra hours will cause scheduling problems because they still have a second job.
But perhaps even more unjust, according to the union: Wibra puts the bill of the corona crisis on its employees by deploying the minus hours. While the chain itself received government support to get through the corona crisis. After all, it was able to pay the wage costs with the NOW support.
According to the union, it is a conscious strategy of the chain to save on labor costs. By mainly deploying permanent employees in the coming months, the company can save on the hiring of temporary workers. This is beneficial, especially during a holiday period.
Read more about retail chains during the lockdown: ‘Our online turnover has doubled – now it is twice very little’
While the NOW wage support was there to keep all people at work, including on-call and temporary workers, according to Dielemans. But it is precisely these that are now called up a lot less because the permanent staff can absorb extra hours.
And there are those extra hours. After the lockdown, Wibra decided to open every Sunday for the time being, instead of one Sunday a month. Opening hours were also extended.
Wibra himself believes that the FNV has wrongly made the retail chain a scapegoat. Employees were simply paid their fixed basic wage. emphasizes Wibra lawyer Rachelle Mourits in the courtroom. The purpose of the plus and minus hours was precisely flexibility. Mourits: “Both employer and employee can use it. It is unclear why it cannot be used in this pandemic, and no flexibility should be expected from employees.” Conversely, Wibra was also flexible towards employees.
In court, the chain tried to use numbers to justify not making excessive demands of its employees.
In total, about 1,800 people work at Wibra – 980 of them have the contract with which plus and minus hours are built up. On average, in the weeks when there was less work due to the lockdown, they saved more than 22 hours of ‘min hours’: 1.3 per week. For the majority of employees, this is less than 15 percent of their ‘fixed’ number of hours. Even when the shops were closed, staff were always present in the branches, partly to prevent burglary.
According to the chain, the wage support that Wibra received between January and March of this year only covers half of all wage costs they incur. It is likely to repay some of the NOW support it received previously.
A verdict will follow within two weeks, although the judge would rather not have done that. Before the end of the session, he made another attempt at mediation. “Why are you even here?” he asked both parties. “Why don’t you sit down at the table together?” In his view, the minuses are a “relatively simple” but “socially important” issue that should be solved collectively – not least as an example for the tens of thousands of employees who are likely to deal with them at other companies. But both FNV and Wibra remained firm: they do not want to sit down with each other for the time being.