BERLIN -- DaimlerChrysler's deal to extend working hours, following hard on a similar move by industrial group Siemens, has cleared the way for more open deals in Germany's collective wage system, analysts said on Friday.
DaimlerChrysler workers agreed to work longer hours and renounce a number of perks that had long been anchored in their pay deal to secure 6,000 jobs at the carmaker's Sindelfingen plant by saving 500 million euros ($613.1 million) a year from 2007.
The agreement followed a deal by workers at two Siemens AG mobile phone plants to raise weekly working hours to 40 from 35 without a corresponding pay rise and came as several other companies also announced plans for longer working hours.
"I do think we're seeing a development in collective wage deals towards making it easier to set separate agreements on conditions for individual companies," said Deutsche Bank economist Stefan Schneider.
The agreement, which came amid growing pressure on workers in western Europe to accept longer working hours to stop jobs being transferred to cheaper locations, was welcomed by political, industry and union leaders.
But there were also warnings that it could pave the way for more disruptions of Germany's relatively harmonious labour relations by making industrial action possible at company level rather than only by unions as is the case at present.
"What is new is that strikes will be transferred to company level as well," said Otto Kempen, a specialist in labour law at Frankfurt University.
"It's like Pandora's Box, in that it potentially opens the way to disputes that could be a cause for concern."
With travel group Thomas Cook announcing a separate deal to lift working hours to 40 from 38.5 for a year and the BAG retail association saying that similar moves in the retail sector were also possible, the trend looked set to spread across Germany.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said the deal sent an important signal that gave companies more flexibility and would set a precedent for upcoming talks at Volkswagen.
Engineering union IG Metall, which had previously warned that an attack on the collective wage deal covering workers at Sindelfingen could threaten the whole system underpinning German industrial relations since World War Two, welcomed the deal.
"This result is a slap in the face for those who had been looking for a general extension of working hours and breaking collective agreements," said deputy union head Berthold Huber.
The issue has been part of a wider debate about the need for major reforms to Germany's social welfare system, strained by slow growth, high unemployment and a steadily ageing population.
The agreement followed growing calls for longer working hours from political leaders such as Bavarian state premier Edmund Stoiber, but political pressure counted less than the threat of jobs being exported outside Germany.
Germany's collective wage agreement system leaves employers and unions the right to negotiate deals independently, and past agreements had contained clauses allowing companies in difficulties to negotiate separate clauses.
"There were always special clauses that allowed individual deals for companies in difficulties which have gradually been expanded a little, and that's been used here," said Schneider.
"If collective wage deals start to develop in that direction, it would probably be the best result of all, so I think it's too early to be talking about burying the collective wage system."