By Yvonne Frederiksen, Firm: Norrbom Vinding

The European Court of Justice has ruled on whether the Part-Time Work Directive should be interpreted as precluding a national provision setting the maximum duration of a fixed-term employment relationship for part-time workers for a longer period than for full-time employees.

It follows from the Part-Time Work Directive that employers in the EU must not treat part-time workers less favourably than full-time employees because of their part-time employment, unless this is justified by objective reasons. But is there discrimination when the maximum duration of a fixed-term employment relationship for part-time employees is longer than for full-time employees? The European Court of Justice would have to decide on this case.

Background

The case concerned an Austrian researcher who had been employed at a university for 12 years for several consecutive fixed-term contracts (both full-time and part-time). The researcher's employment ratio had reached the maximum duration that was permissible according to Austrian rules for fixed-term employment conditions at selected universities.

According to the Austrian rules, several consecutive fixed-term contacts were allowed for employees of selected universities, but the total duration of fixed-term employment could not exceed six years for full-time employees and eight years for part-time employees. In special circumstances, and if there was an objective justification, permission could be granted to extend employment up to a total of ten years for full-time employees and 12 years for part-time employees.

Although the researcher's employment relationship had reached its maximum duration, she believed her employment relationship should be considered to be indefinite. The case ended up in an Austrian court, which asked the European Court of Justice to rule on whether the Part-Time Work Directive precluded this type of provision.

The European Court of Justice ruling

The question before the European Court of Justice was whether the Austrian rules on the maximum duration of a fixed-term employment were compatible with the Part-Time Work Directive.

The European Court of Justice held that the Part-Time Work Directive should be interpreted as preventing national legislation from stipulating that the maximum duration of an employment relationship is longer for part-time workers than for comparable full-time employees, unless this difference is justified by an objective reason.

The University had argued before the European Court of Justice that the discrimination was justified by objective circumstances. The level of knowledge and experience gained by part-time employees in their employment was necessarily less than that gained by comparable full-time employees.

In this context, the European Court of Justice stated that seniority does mean greater experience, but whether such a criterion is objective depends on all the circumstances of the case. This European Court of Justice’s considered that this was for the Austrian court to review.

The Austrian researcher also claimed during the case that the Austrian rules put women at a particular disadvantage, because fewer women work full time. The researcher therefore claimed that there was indirect discrimination on grounds of gender in violation of the Equal Treatment Directive. The European Court of Justice ruled that the Austrian rules could in principle constitute indirect discrimination on grounds of sex if it can be shown that the national law adversely affects significantly more women than men, and this is not objectively justified by a legitimate reason. However, it was up to the national court to rule on this issue.

Norrbom Vinding notes

The European Court of Justice judgment confirms that there can be discrimination against part-time workers compared to comparable full-time employees unless the unequal treatment is justified by objective circumstances. It also demonstrates that the Court of Justice will in general leave the specific factual assessment of whether a finding of discrimination is justified on objective grounds (under both the Part-Time Work Directive and the Equal Treatment Directive) to the national courts.