COMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS CONSIDERS REPORT OF AUSTRIA
20 November 2013
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today considered the fourth periodic report of Austria on how the country is implementing the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Introducing the report, Anna Sporrer, Deputy Head of the Constitutional Service at the Federal Chancellery of Austria, said that that Austria was fully dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law, which constituted priorities of the country’s domestic and foreign policy. Ensuring the economic, social and cultural rights of women constituted an essential element of gender equality. Measures to ensure compatibility of work and family life and breaking down stereotypes were essential elements for improving the situation of women in the labour market. Another basic prerequisite for economic independence was to be able to live without domestic violence. Reducing and preventing the risk of poverty and social exclusion were also among major concerns of Austria’s social policy.
The Committee noted that the report showed significant progress compared to the previous report, and praised Austria’s overall respect of human rights. Committee Experts raised questions on gender equality and, in particular, the principle of equal pay for equal work, sharing of responsibilities at home and application of paternity leave, domestic violence, treatment of migrants, recognition and protection of minorities, minimum wages and social security schemes, youth unemployment and poverty rates. Special attention was given to the absence of the direct application of the provisions of the Covenant to national legislation.
In concluding remarks, Ms. Sporrer thanked the Committee and the members of the delegation, and said that the dialogue had been interesting and useful. She expressed hope that the delegation had demonstrated that the State party was trying to do its best to uphold all economic, social and cultural rights in Austria.
Ariranga Govindasamy Pillay, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Austria, thanked the delegation for providing useful answers to all the questions by the Experts.
The delegation of Austria included representatives of the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection, Ministry for European and International Affairs, Ministry for Health, Ministry of Justice, Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture, Ministry of the Interior, Ombudsman Office for Equal Treatment, as well as representatives of the Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will next meet in public on Thursday, 21 November at 10 a.m. to consider the report of Norway.
The fourth periodic report of Austria (E/C.12/AUT/4) can be seen here.
Presentation of the Report of Austria
Presenting the report, ANNA SPORRER, Deputy Head of the Constitutional Service at the Federal Chancellery of Austria, said that Austria was fully dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law, which constituted priorities of the country’s domestic and foreign policy. The Austrian Government attached great importance to ensuring full compliance with Austria’s international human rights obligations, as well as to cooperating with non-governmental organizations in many different spheres of human rights.
In Austria, ensuring the economic, social and cultural rights of women constituted an essential element of gender equality. Numerous measures had been taken during the reporting period to improve the situation of women in Austria, but the situation of women on the labour market remained a big challenge. Being aware of the barriers for gender equality, the Government had passed the National Action Plan for Equality of Women and Men in the Labour Market in 2010, which included 55 specific measures. The remaining gap still existed because of structural inequalities such as segregation in work sectors. An online wage calculator had been in place since 2011, providing easily accessible information about pay customary in a sector or a place. The State party had also committed to increasing the share of women in supervisory bodies of enterprises in which the Government held a 50 per cent share.
Measures to ensure the compatibility of work and family life and breaking down stereotypes were essential elements for improving the situation of women in the labour market. The Government had thus increasingly invested in further child care facilities, and enhanced measures for paternity leave in the private sector.
Another basic prerequisite for economic independence and the possibility of living in a self-assured way was to be able to live without violence. Austria was proud to be one of the first European countries to provide for a comprehensive system of legal measures and institutions to combat violence against women and children. In 2013, a structure for providing accommodation for women in need would be established, comprising accommodation, counselling, care, assistance and crisis intervention for affected girls and young women.
The Austrian unemployment rate stood at 5 per cent and was one of the lowest in the European Union. The Labour Market Promotion Act provided for the achievement and maintenance of full employment and an optimal functioning of the labour market in order to ensure labour supply for the economy and employment of all persons available to the Austrian labour market. The Public Employment Services were guided by the principle of “get moving prior to granting passive benefits”. Objectives of the labour market included preventing the exclusion of individuals from the labour market, promoting gender equality and combating gender-specific labour market segregation, keeping the period of unemployment as short as possible, and increasing labour market transparency.
Reducing and preventing the risk of poverty and social exclusion were major concerns of Austria’s social policy. The incidence of poverty in the country was estimated at 12.6 per cent, which was lower than the European Union average of 16.9 per cent. The primary way to fight poverty consisted of providing social benefits within the general social security schemes, in particular pension benefits and other forms of financial assistance. A minimum benefit system had been in place since 2010, which, inter alia, strengthened the position of single parents and secured separate health insurance coverage for persons without regular health insurance.
Regarding the rights of children, the main legal improvement in the State party had been the entry into force in 2011 of the Federal Constitutional Act on the Rights of Children, which enshrined core elements of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Main provisions included the right of the child to protection and care, best possible development and advancement, prohibition of child labour, the child’s right to education and to be free from violence, and the principle of equal treatment of disabled children in all spheres of daily life.
While human rights standards in Austria were well developed, the delegation was fully aware that there was always room for improvement and was looking forward to an open and constructive dialogue with the Committee.
Questions by the Experts
ARIRANGA GOVINDASAMY PILLAY, Committee Member and Rapporteur for Austria, said that the report showed significant progress compared to the previous report. The overall situation of human rights in the State party was very good, but it could always be improved.
Was there a mechanism for a structured dialogue with non-governmental organizations, as was recommended in the Committee’s concluding observations in 2006?
How did the State party ensure that the Covenant’s obligations were effectively implemented by different Länder? Efforts had to be made to ensure that all provisions were in place for the full implementation of the Covenant. Another Expert asked for specifications on how exactly the Covenant would be applied throughout the State party. How did the Federal Government ensure that each Länder implemented the concluding recommendations?
Which obstacles were preventing the State party from signing the Optional Protocol to the Covenant?
An Expert asked that the delegation elaborate on different ethnic groups in Austria and whether there were special laws to protect them.
Could the State party explain how it was coordinating and choosing recipients of its foreign aid, given that Austria was a prominent donor nation. Was there any way to assess the impact of the donor aid?
More information was sought about the conditions and treatment of migrants in Austria, who had their specific cultural traditions.
A significant weakness of Austria’s Ombudsman Board was that it had no mandate over the private sector. How did the State party deal with discrimination in the private sector? The Committee would still prefer to see a national Human Rights Commission fully established, in line with the Paris Principles.
How many fathers in Austria were availing themselves of using paternity leave?
Responses by the Delegation
Answering the question on the dialogue with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the delegation said that civil society was consulted in the process, but the current report had not been sent to the NGOs for their opinion. NGOs were free and encouraged to submit their own “shadow” reports.
The State party had reservations about the direct implementation of international conventions. They were not directly applicable, but Parliament ensured that their provisions would be implemented through national laws and other measures. Claimants could not refer directly to the Covenant’s provisions in courts, but those who felt discriminated against could address such issues through judicial channels.
Austria had not yet signed the Optional Protocol.
There existed an act on ethnic groups, which allowed for the recognition of six autochthonous groups. All recognized groups had their languages distinct from German and territories which they had inhabited for long periods; they received subsidies from the Federal Government and the Länder.
Development cooperation was a distinct policy of the Austrian Government. In the 2013-2015 document, human rights were introduced as an integral element, including non-discrimination and the protection of poor and marginalized groups. The real challenge was translating abstract principles into real life. Human rights due diligence when it came to corporations was also part of Austria’s national policy.
Many issues covered under the Covenant were actually dealt with by Länder. If there were questions of incompatibility, the Federal Chancellery and legal departments in Länder governments would consult and provide legal opinions.
A network of human rights coordinators, established in both federal ministries and regional governments in 1999, was another way to secure the implementation of various covenants and conventions.
On the question of the integration of migrants, the Federal Government had decided to have a secretary in the Ministry of the Interior to deal with that portfolio. Some projects were financed by the European Fund for Refugees. The relationship between the Government and the non-nationals was the essential issue in question. Since 2009, each policeman in Austria had to participate in a three-day training to learn about cultural differences and respect for diversity. Efforts were being made to have police officers with migrant background in police stations across the country. For several years now, the city of Vienna had been operating a support welcome programme for migrants with legal status.
The Austrian Ombudsman Board existed along a number of specialized commissions and was generally in line with the Paris Principles. The main committee of the National Assembly appointed members of the Board, and there had been no political will to change those provisions. In addition, an advisory board on human rights was in place, consisting of representatives of competent federal ministries and the non-governmental organizations.
Questions by the Experts
An Expert inquired whether there could be examples of court decisions when rights provided for by the Covenant could be invoked? Would the State party consider reviewing its reservations in that respect?
Reporting was an opportunity to communicate with civil society, which was why the report should have been widely circulated, another Expert noted.
Fragmented provisions of anti-discrimination laws were a good reason to consider adopting a comprehensive anti-discrimination legal framework.
If a human rights violation was committed with Austrian development funds against somebody living in a third country, what remedies were in place to deal with that? Was there a human rights impact assessment and monitoring system in place?
The Expert asked if the State would consider having a comprehensive, overarching national human rights plan, in addition to concrete, specialized action plans.
Responses by the Delegation
The right to work and safe working conditions, as well as to social security, were enshrined in various legislative acts. Despite the fact that anti-discrimination legislation was somewhat scattered in Austria, the State party believed that anyone could ask for and receive recourse when needed. The Equal Treatment Act had been in place for almost 35 years and the Ombudsman was acting in an effective and efficient manner.
In accordance to article 18 of the Constitution, it would be hard to see that the Covenant, or any other international treaty, would have direct applicability in Austrian courts in the foreseeable future.
Combatting gender stereotypes was of key importance for gender equality. Paternity leave took place in the civil service only, and had so far been used by 663 men. There were several campaigns in place to have it extended to the private sector as well. A campaign was also underway for girls to show them that they could choose any career they wished. Every Ministry had a plan for the promotion of women.
There were mechanisms in place to harmonize Länder laws with the federal legislation.
Regarding cooperation with civil sector, the delegation explained that the current report had not been disseminated before it had been handed in to the Committee, but it had been shared with the public afterwards.
If there were grave violations of human rights by those receiving Austrian development aid, funding could be withdrawn as the last resort, but that would need to be a gradual, contextual process.
Questions by the Experts
A Committee Expert noted that Austria had committed itself to giving 0.7 per cent of its gross national product to development aid, but the real amount had been reduced in recent years. Was that a retrogression on Austria’s international obligations? Another Expert asked if the State party prioritized bilateral or multilateral aid.
An Expert reminded that Austria had refused to accede to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and asked what the main reasons for that were.
Responses by the Delegation
With regard to Official Development Aid, Austria was fully dedicated to fulfilling its obligations, and from 2015 onwards the percentage was expected to raise again. Austria had a vision for a comprehensive approach to development, especially for the post-2015 period, and was reaching out to other partners with the view of ensuring joint programming and the aid’s effectiveness. At the time being, 44 per cent of funds went to bilateral aid, and 56 per cent to multilateral aid.
On the impact of the Covenant in the Austrian legal system, the delegation reiterated that there were no direct paths for the application of the Committee’s concluding observations and recommendations. No legal solution could be provided at the moment. The State party would commit to treating the Covenant the same way as the Universal Periodic Review.
The reason why Austria could not ratify the Convention on Migrants could be described as political, as the priority was to protect the country’s labour market and national legislation did not allow it for the time being.
Questions by the Experts
An Expert inquired whether the principle of position-related equal pay was applicable to
undocumented foreigners, refugees and asylum seekers?
More details were asked on unemployment figures, and on what was being done to help out those who had been unemployed for a long time.
Was there a plan for developing a system of equal pay for work of equal value, which would benefit women who were taking primary care of the home?
Children with disabilities were often taught in segregated schools. Was there a plan to provide more inclusion of people with disabilities in broader society structures?
An Expert noted that asylum seekers were not able to access job market for a long time, which affected negatively on their integration.
The amount of social aid provided to ensure decent standards of living was deemed by some as being far from satisfactory. Could something be done to increase that amount?
Youth unemployment continued to be 60 per cent higher than the overall unemployment rate, an Expert said. What was the Government doing to improve the effectiveness of the existing apprenticeship programmes?
What portion of employers were covered by the framework agreement between the Chamber of Employers and the Labour Union Federation on the minimum wage of 1,000 euro per month, an Expert asked.
Responses by the Delegation
All workers, even those working illegally, had the same rights when it came to labour conditions and anti-discrimination.
Austria was using recognized, international methods to report on unemployment rates.
Sanctions were only the last resort when it came to the long unemployed, and they followed a careful examination and detailed monitoring.
The majority of part-time jobs were held by women, for which there were still a number of structural reasons.
Youth with migrant background faced multiple problems and discrimination, which was why there were compulsory vocational advice and youth coaching in place. Efforts were being made to ease the recognition of foreign educational qualifications.
A new law was in place to combat wage dumping, and if the wage levels were lower than minimal, employers, be they Austrian or foreign, had to pay high fines. Migrant rights were most frequently violated in that area; migrants had to receive the same wages as Austrian workers for the same amount of work.
Questions by the Experts
An Expert commented that Austria was a rich country, but could do much more when it came to poverty. Which measures had been taken to alleviate the suffering of the poor?
The reception conditions of asylum seekers were described by the Ombudsman as violations of human rights. What was the State party doing about that?
Was adequate health care guaranteed for migrants, Roma people and those living under the poverty line? Were specific measures being taken to ensure that migrants had necessary information on access to the health system?
An Expert asked for an explanation over the disconcerting fact concerning the increase of drug-related deaths.
Could a figure be provided on the percentage of children under three for whom child care had been provided in 2012?
Had measures been taken to ensure that newly constructed buildings were accessible to persons with disabilities?
A question was asked on why there were relatively high rates of domestic violence in a country which was considered highly developed and with a high index of happiness.
Responses by the Delegation
Regarding the application of the Covenant in Austrian national legislation, the delegation explained that many provisions were implemented indirectly, through a number of relevant laws, such as the Labour Code. Courts and judges, for example, when addressed, had prerogatives to decide on entitlements provided by law.
Asylum seekers had access to the labour market after three months, which was in line with European Union regulations.
Answering the question on minimum wage, the delegation stressed that income did not only come from one source. Minimum unemployment benefits could be added to family pensions, so that a poverty risk would be avoided. The Länder were spending significant resources to secure the minimum social security payments. The legal basis for health insurance provided for a more comprehensive inclusion of underprivileged citizens in the national scheme.
Between 2005 and 2010, there had been a significant increase in the number of people who received the minimum wage, which had been caused by the abolition of regress and the alteration of the minimum wage designation. This increase was perhaps due to the economic crisis.
There was only one group of employees – newspaper dispatchers – who had a minimum wage smaller than the general 1,000 euro per month. There were discussions to raise the threshold. All enterprises in Austria were obligatory members of the Chamber of Commerce, and all employees were covered by the collective agreement even if they were not members of trade unions individually. That unique model in Europe served to prevent against wage dumping.
With regard to persons with disabilities, it was explained that harmonizing equal treatment had taken place under the 2006 law. In daily life, the rights of persons with disabilities had to be protected, and no discrimination should take place. Some 22 per cent of companies complied with regulations on hiring persons with disabilities to the degree required. People could go to courts and claim protection against discrimination, as well as ask for their jobs and their salaries. The Equality Act prohibited discrimination against persons with disabilities because of physical barriers which impeded their free movement. There was an interest to have such people employed as long as possible and have them integrated in the society to the maximum degree.
Problems with domestic violence existed in Austria, which was widely acknowledged. There had been changes in criminal justice with the view of improving the protection of victims. Those involved were strictly prosecuted and victims provided all necessary care. There was also protection against secondary victimization and severe psychological traumas. There were specialized offices and prosecutors and 24/7 hot lines for reporting violence in the family.
There was a legal obligation to intervene when there was violence in the domestic realm. When that was not possible, perpetrators were sent away and banned from approaching their family members. Since communication efforts had been strengthened, the population at large was much more aware of the issue and ways to deal with it.
In Austria, prostitution was not a criminal act. However, offering financial incentives to persons under the age of 18 in exchange for sexual services was illegal and punishable with up to three years in prison. Those found guilty of organizing prostitution in the context of human trafficking could also receive prison sentences.
Answering questions on asylum seekers, the delegation said that the procedure lasted for 2.9 months on the average. In June 2012, Austria had allowed for apprenticeships for migrants under the age of 18, which was now raised to the age of 25. Asylum seekers were able to obtain all services as other citizens, including health care, psychotherapy and physiotherapy. Education was mandatory until the age of 15, which also applied to asylum seekers.
Access of migrants to the health system was indeed somewhat of a problem, which was why a number of initiatives had been launched by the Government. Information brochures had been published in migrants’ languages. The so-called “video interpreting” had been introduced in hospitals, to assist migrants communicate with health personnel.
Only 0.9 per cent of persons in Austria were not covered by the national health system, which was a free decision by the individuals in question. Efforts were made to provide medical services and supplies to populations living in distant rural areas.
On the question of drugs, the delegation stated that the number of victims dying from drug abuse was fluctuating, and the current numbers were showing a reduction. Institutions subsided by the State were providing medical and psychological care and counseling.
Regarding the right to health and medical treatments, there was a need for a court decision if a person in question refused the treatment and the legal guardian disagreed.
The Children Rights Monitoring Board was in charge of preparing suggestions for improvements in relevant fields, in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The proportion of children in child care facilities was expected to reach 28 per cent in 2014, and 33 per cent in 2015. Public spending on child care facilities had tripled in recent years.
Public expenditures for families had also increased in the reporting period, and it exceeded the rise in the cost of living caused by inflation.
The State party was committed to addressing the lack of housing. In June 2013, the Government had decided to make significant investments in social housing, which was the responsibility of the Länder. Tenants were protected by special measures, including price protection; protection of termination of a tenant’s contract, which could now not be terminated easily; and delays in eviction which could last up to six months if the tenant would be in danger of ending up on the street. In Vienna, the programme “Housing First” targeted homeless people, as well as people with special needs.
Austria was able to help address income inequalities through the progressive taxation system, tax exemptions and social giving.
Questions by the Experts
An Expert encouraged the State party to keep the current processing times for asylum seekers and serve as an example for other European Union Member States.
The Expert wanted to be assured that men in Austria were indeed availing themselves of the opportunity to use paternal leave. What percentage did that represent?
Youth unemployment was persistently higher than general unemployment, for which an Expert required explanation.
A question was reiterated on whether the principle of equal pay had been introduced for the
work of equal value, and if there was a system in place containing such provisions.
Redistribution of national income was welcomed as a very good means of addressing income disparities. Could subsidies be considered as a way to stabilize consumer prices?
Another Expert inquired whether the State party would consider establishing a statutory minimum wage.
A question was asked whether civil and political rights should be distinguished from economic, social and cultural rights when it came to direct application to national legislation.
Responses by the Delegation
The delegation emphasized that Austria, compared to other European Union Member States, had a low rate of youth unemployment, but it was still higher than the general rate. The answer for that relatively high rate of youth unemployment might be found in the education system, which was perhaps not preparing young people for finding jobs in a timely manner. Some youth also lacked appropriate social skills, which was something to be looked into.
There was regrettably no system in place to ensure equal pay for work of equal value. In principle, it was the duty of trade unions to recognize good salaries for women as well. That horizontal segregation was perhaps a bigger problem than vertical segregation.
Austria was not planning to have statutory legal wages based on law, and a huge majority of all workers were covered by collective agreements, which were statutory in norm.
About one third of Austrian fathers took short-term parental leave, but the figure for longer-term leave was much lower.
The relative child poverty rate stood at 17.5 per cent before taxes, cash transfers and benefits, which was then brought down to around 7 per cent after those measures took place. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of people living in poverty in the country had decreased by more than 100,000.
The rejection of some minorities to be registered by ethnic criteria was indicative of discrimination earlier experienced by certain groups, such as the Roma. Statistical data on ethnic criteria was thus difficult to acquire. Several qualitative studies had been conducted to analyze the conditions of minorities and migrants when it came to the labour market, access to health and literacy.
Since a constitutional provision adopted in 1964, no international covenant or convention had
had a direct application to Austrian legislation. On the other hand, the European Charter of Fundamental Rights had the level of constitutional law. There was a hope that the distinction between economic, social and cultural rights, on one hand, and civil and political rights, on the other, would decrease.
Women were increasingly better educated than men, but they were still taking care of more than two thirds of household and family chores. The issue of equal pay for equal value would need to be looked into.
Questions by the Experts
The percentage of women in technical universities stood at only 20 per cent, which was among the worst figures in the European Union. Could an explanation be provided for such a phenomenon, and what measures was the State party taking to rectify such a situation?
Even though the State party officially recognized six minority groups, there were other groups which wished to be recognized as such, but nothing had been done in that respect. Could the delegation explain what objective criteria Austria was using to recognize or not recognize certain groups?
Were Roma and migrant children suffering from the lack of access to education, and what was being done to remedy the existing situation?
Responses by the Delegation
Gender stereotypes existed in society, including at universities. Efforts were being made to promote the encouragement of girls to go into fields which had been traditionally male-dominated. There was a quota of 40 per cent for women in all collegial bodies; if the quota was not met, appeals could be made. Out of 21 universities in Austria, 19 per cent were headed by women.
The figure of people affected by poverty in Austria had remained stable, and could be divided into several sub-groups. Among them, people living in sustainable poverty, supported by social security over time, had increased.
Some 20 per cent of students and pupils in Austria spoke a language different than German, and most of them were bilingual. The group of children who did not know German was rather small, regardless of some statements to the contrary by the media. Some 30,000 pupils went to classes in their mother tongue classes, and were taught by more than 400 teachers.
Austrian Roma did not want to be registered and were actively fighting against it, their reluctance based in history. There was no precise information on the number of Roma living in the country. A number of projects were underway for the better integration of Roma – and migrant – children in schools. A study was ongoing on the situation of Roma children and youth in the Austrian educational system.
The criteria for acknowledgment of minorities under the Minority Act were the following: a people had to live in a distinct area, with a common language and culture. Once recognized, they received support from the Government. The Yeniche did not represent a large enough group, did not speak a distinct language or live in a separate area, while the Polish had had no separate, historic settlements over the last 100 years.
Question by the Experts
An Expert reiterated the question on why some minorities were recognized and others were not.
Response by the Delegation
A distinction between autochthonous minorities and others stemmed from the Treaty of Vienna, which prescribed that Austria had to protect the rights of two minorities – Croats and Slovenes. Other recognized minorities were those who had remained in the territory in Austria following the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and which met the criteria listed in the Minority Act. Among the Roma, there was a division between migrant and autochthonous Roma; together, they might count for between 30,000 and 50,000 persons.
ANNA SPORRER, Deputy Head of the Constitutional Service at the Federal Chancellery of Austria, thanked the Committee and the members of the delegation, and said that the dialogue had been interesting and useful. She expressed hope that the delegation had demonstrated that the State party was trying to do its best to uphold all economic, social and cultural rights in Austria.
ARIRANGA GOVINDASAMY PILLAY, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Austria, thanked the delegation for providing useful answers to all the questions by the Experts.
ZDISLAW KEDZIA, Chairperson of the Committee, thanked the delegation for all the responses and reiterated that the Committee was looking forward to future interactions with the State party. The delegation was reminded of the 48-hour rule to provide the Committee with the pending written responses and documents.
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