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EDITORIAL

Hearts and minds: Workplace battle to continue

"If you're not left-wing when you're 20, you've got no heart; if you're not conservative when you're 40, you've got no brain".
Few issues bring the heart and mind into greater conflict than that of relations between labour and business. Employers grumble if employing workers is expensive or if firing an employee is difficult, because as bosses they want their freedoms circumscribed as little as possible; whether they would appreciate the same freedoms being exercised by their bosses in turn is another matter.
Workers grouse whenever their job security, salaries or perks are threatened, because as anyone who has ever performed a blue collar job knows, the object of labour, its shining triumph, is to do the least amount of work for the greatest wage. How much the attitude of workers change who have been promoted to management; how the heart initially remains with the former colleagues, but how the fondness fades amid the arid realities confronting the managerial mind.


Slovakia's labour law clearly suffers from an excess of heart and a dearth of brains, which is another way of saying that the country's unions had a major role in its preparation. It's too bad, because it perpetuates the confrontational image of labour and capital.

"If you're not left-wing when you're 20, you've got no heart; if you're not conservative when you're 40, you've got no brain".

Few issues bring the heart and mind into greater conflict than that of relations between labour and business. Employers grumble if employing workers is expensive or if firing an employee is difficult, because as bosses they want their freedoms circumscribed as little as possible; whether they would appreciate the same freedoms being exercised by their bosses in turn is another matter.

Workers grouse whenever their job security, salaries or perks are threatened, because as anyone who has ever performed a blue collar job knows, the object of labour, its shining triumph, is to do the least amount of work for the greatest wage. How much the attitude of workers change who have been promoted to management; how the heart initially remains with the former colleagues, but how the fondness fades amid the arid realities confronting the managerial mind.

Hearts and minds. It's strange how often one hears unemployment figures doubted by porky bankers in leather swivel chairs, the mind braying theories, the heart never having endured a search for jobs when there simple aren't any. Except for door-to-door perfume sales, or erotic massage.

It's funny, too, how much social benefits scamming really does go on, how little people who have jobs value them, how quickly the 'right to work' becomes the obligation of my employer to provide me with a job, no matter what the fortunes of the company, no matter how lacklustre my own performance.

It's not that the interests of business and labour must inevitably be in conflict, however, it's just that an even-handed and perceptive referee is needed to adjudicate the war between workplace hearts and minds. This referee should not be 'market forces', because - can't we all finally agree? - 'the market' can be rather intimidating for ordinary working men and women trying to defend their rights, while it's far less daunting for employers, who understand its thinking and its cadences.

What is needed is a good labour law which does four things: a) sets clear rules for every important labour interaction, be it hiring or firing, taking a holiday or going to the washroom; b) makes sure both employees and employers know the rules, and gives all sides a chance to participate in the writing of them; c) ensures that infractions of the rules are reported to an independent authority, who rules on cases swiftly and metes out adequate punishment to wrong-doers, and d) gives incentives both to employers to hire and employees to seek work.

Slovakia's labour law, however, does none of these things. Originally written in 1965, and amended 15 times in the last 10 years, the law is a mishmash of communist-era and early-capitalist thinking. Workers can be fired, for example, for 'gross infractions' of workplace discipline, or for repeated minor infractions which have been brought to the employee's attention in writing within six months of dismissal. But nothing is said about what constitutes an infraction - that's up to the employer to decide. And the erring employee still has to be given two months' notice.

And having been amended 15 times in the 1990's alone, and completely rewritten by the government March 4, the labour law remains a mystery to most workers and employers. True, it's on the Internet, but it's so stodgily organised that very few of the 18% of Slovaks who have access to the Internet are ever going to manage to wade through it. Given the importance of the document, it could have been mailed out to employers, and user-friendly excerpts posted in public places.

Whether or not the courts can be considered an independent authority is moot, but the fact they take over two years to rule on most labour cases means that people simply don't bother pursuing their rights through legal means.

In the end, by making it hard to fire people you motivate employers to invest in machinery and automation rather than new staff; by requiring that 'employee councils' or 'employee representatives' be set up at every company where there is no union, you force employees to organise rather than leaving the decision up to them, and add an extra layer of bureaucracy to the work environment. In other words, in trying to protect workers from capitalist phantoms, the law ends up hurting their interests by demotivating employers to create new jobs.

Slovakia's labour law clearly suffers from an excess of heart and a dearth of brains, which is another way of saying that the country's unions had a major role in its preparation. It's too bad, because it perpetuates the confrontational image of labour and capital, a relationship more appropriate to the 'satanic mills' of the 19th century than to the modern workplace. It elevates the heart, which thrills in the struggle and relishes opposition, and suffocates the mind, the only medium through which labour and capital will ever understand each other's needs and legitimate claims on the work process.

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