Minister pledges social work law improvements

Political decision-makers have promised to introduce a law to clarify uncertain aspects of the legal framework that Austria’s community workers are confronted with.Social Democratic (SPÖ) Labour and Social Issues Minister Rudolf Hundstorfer announced today (Weds) that he will raise the issue in parliament soon. The minister explained that people willing to do unpaid social work often have difficulties getting time off from their employers. Hundstorfer added that regulations were unclear considering the workplace situation of those interested in instantly helping people affected by natural disasters.Hundstorfer said around three million of the overall 8.5 million Austrians do some form of unpaid welfare work every week. The SPÖ official pointed out that the European Union (EU) average was just 23 per cent, while around 44 per cent of Austrians aged 15 and older were volunteering in the community.The labour minister’s announcement to change federal laws regarding unpaid welfare work comes in the middle of a heated debate between the country’s political parties on whether the Austrian army must be reformed and how.The discussion is closely observed by the country’s healthcare institutions and its charity organisations since tens of thousands of young Austrian men found fit enough for the mandatory six-month military service opt for the Zivildienst. The service means a nine-month programme in which they work in hospitals or for charities like the Red Cross and Caritas.SPÖ Defence Minister Norbert Darabos is adamant about getting rid of the conscription model. The minister was criticised by most political rivals for his U-turn on the issue since he said less than six months ago that the current system was “set in stone”. Darabos stressed at that time he would not reform it in any way as long as he is in charge.The defence minister’s change of mind followed Viennese SPÖ Mayor Michael Häupl’s appeal to abandon the conscription system. Häupl argued that the scheme robbed young Austrians of six months of their lives, adding that the economy would benefit if the affected men would start to work or study immediately after school instead of serving with the army for half a year.Darabos recently said he realised that the safety circumstances in Europe have changed. “A tank war in the Marchfeld (region in Lower Austria) has become very unlikely,” he argued.The Freedom Party (FPÖ), which supports the current model, and the Greens – who want to reform it – both called on Darabos to step down. The minister was however also harshly attacked by the People’s Party (ÖVP), the SP֒s coalition partner. ÖVP whip Karlheinz Kopf and other party officials accused the minister of having acted on order of Häupl and the Kronen Zeitung newspaper. Kopf said the minister’s actions were “dynamite” for the climate within the government coalition.Darabos said he would not pull out from reforming the army, explaining that he wanted to hold a referendum on the issue in the near future. Pressure on Darabos intensified last month when he sacked army general Edmund Entacher, the highest representative of the Austrian military. Entacher said in an interview that he doubted that the defence minister’s alternative models would be as efficient and not more expensive than the current one. The army chief of staff controversially used various arguments previously listed by Darabos back when the minister backed the conscription system.Around 46,000 Austrian men have to undergo two-day medical checks every year to find out whether they are fit enough for the conscription after finishing school. Around half of the average 26,000 men aged 18 to 19 who pass the series of tests opt for Zivildienst. Hundstorfer promised to present a model which would ensure that charity organisations would not suffer even if the conscription system gets axed.Some politicians suggested the introduction of a so-called social year in which all young Austrian men and women could be ordered to do welfare work for a low salary for 12 months. Constitution experts are at odds over whether such a system would be legal.Meanwhile, cosmetic products and drugstore chain DM said its 5,400 employees in Austria will be granted an additional paid day off work if they use the time for community work.