ONLY days before the proposed amendment to the Labour Code was to go before parliament for debate, Slovakia's largest labour group conceded that it might agree to a compromise on one of the most contentious provisions in the new law - stricter limits on overtime.
Miroslav Gazdík, the president of the Confederation of Labour Associations (KOZ) union umbrella group, said after talks with Prime Minister Robert Fico on March 14 that he would consider backing down from a proposed cap on overtime.
"If people want to work, we won't prevent them from doing so," he said, as reported by the ČTK Czech news wire.
Under the new rules, the maximum overtime that could be agreed between employer and employee is to be reduced from 400 hours annually to 250. Hospitals and farmers are among those employers who say the cap would seriously impair their ability to function, as they would restrict seasonal employment and on-call time.
Gazdík said he was confident that a deal would be reached with employers on the issue of overtime that would be agreeable to both sides.
According to the left-wing Fico government, the Labour Code amendment will provide greater protection to employees than they currently enjoy under legislation scripted by the previous right-wing government in 2003.
However, employers have objected strongly to the changes, which include increasing the entitlement of laid-off employees to cash settlements, giving organized labour more power in the workplace, and increasing labour rights for part-time and temporary employees.
The Labour Code, which PM Fico has called "the law of the year", is seen as a test case of the government's sincerity about amending or even rolling back some of the economic reforms launched by its predecessor.
Until mid-March, the government and organized labour had been unwilling to accept changes in the proposed legislation, but on March 12, the Labour Ministry for the first time admitted that a compromise might be possible.
"If employers and unions reach an agreement, we will respect it," said Labour Ministry spokeswoman Oľga Škorecová.
According to union representatives, while overtime might not be a major sticking point, it will be more difficult to reach a deal on the ministry's new definition of "dependent work", which would force firms that currently use self-employed tradesmen to do much of their work to take them on as full-time employees, thus incurring the additional costs of their payroll taxes.
"The ministry sees room for further debate and agreement on various provisions in the new Labour Code," said Škorecová. Labour, business and ministry representatives were to meet again on March 16 to discuss possible changes.
The government had originally planned to submit the bill for debate to parliament during this month's session, beginning on March 20, but PM Robert Fico's Smer party has been swamped with so many written objections to the changes that the Code is now expected to be debated in April.
"It's a good thing that these matters are being discussed intensely right now, because the real fight over the Labour Code has yet to begin," said Fico, adding he would also be holding talks with employers. "I want to talk to them too," he said.
Fico's meeting with employers should take place following his trip to Israel in the third week of March.
Further substantial changes are likely in the legislature, as both of Fico's coalition partners, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the Slovak National Party (SNS), have said they resent the fact that the new Code emerged from a pre-election deal signed between Smer and organized labour.
Milan Urbáni of the HZDS said that some of the changes could lead to "catastrophe".
"We see things from a different point of view than Smer, which is under considerable pressure from the unions," he said. "The unions sometimes act as if they were the fourth member of the ruling coalition."
"We don't want to go from one extreme to the other," said SNS MP Rafael Rafaj of the proposed changes.
The Labour Code amendment was originally scheduled to take effect on July 1 this year, but due to the number of political and business objections, the deadline is currently under threat.
19. Mar 2007 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson