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Generous labour law package to go before government

Many Slovaks might have laughed at the recent public discussion in Britain over whether Prime Minister Tony Blair should take paternity leave to spend time with his new-born son. The Slovak parliament would never waste time discussing such issues, many said, because Slovak society is not nearly as 'politically correct' as England's.
However, the opposite may actually be closer to the truth, as the issue of parental leave is part of a slew of important new Labour Code and working legislation reforms set to go before the government this week.
The main aim of these reforms, which are expected to take effect in July 2001, is to approximate Slovak labour legislation to European Union standards and bring more clarity to the Labour Code. The changes mean to give employee representatives greater scope to discuss labour issues in companies, as well as to protect civil servants from being fired every time a new government comes to power.


Labour Minister Peter Magvaši, of the socialist SDĽ party, has produced a package of generous labour reforms.
photo. Alexander Šúry

Many Slovaks might have laughed at the recent public discussion in Britain over whether Prime Minister Tony Blair should take paternity leave to spend time with his new-born son. The Slovak parliament would never waste time discussing such issues, many said, because Slovak society is not nearly as 'politically correct' as England's.

However, the opposite may actually be closer to the truth, as the issue of parental leave is part of a slew of important new Labour Code and working legislation reforms set to go before the government this week.

The main aim of these reforms, which are expected to take effect in July 2001, is to approximate Slovak labour legislation to European Union standards and bring more clarity to the Labour Code. The changes mean to give employee representatives greater scope to discuss labour issues in companies, as well as to protect civil servants from being fired every time a new government comes to power.

Along with the approval of the new Labour Code, the reforms pre-suppose the passage of several related changes such as an overhaul of the Law on Public Servants (e.g. teachers), the Law on State Servants (e.g. ministry employees) as well as the Law on Collective Negotiations. Collectively, these reforms are just the last touches on a wider reform of labour legislation in Slovakia, which began in 1991 and will result finally in the approval of the Labour Code - a code that has been revised on average twice a year since 1965, but which has never been fully replaced.

The new labour legislation has been largely accepted by both the coalition government and opposition parties as one of the conditions that Slovakia has to fulfill before it can join the European Union. According to government officials and labour union experts that have been instrumental in drawing up the reforms, the new legislation will finally give Slovakia a labour policy similar to that in EU member states.

One of the key aspects of the proposed legislation is that it sets a clear division between employees working in the private sector and those working in the state sector - something that has been demanded by European Union labour advisors.

This particular reform garnered praise not just from the government itself, but also from union officials who said that the move would clarify the borders between state and private sector work - important if the two sectors were to carry different employee benefits.

"In general, this reform is good because it differentiates employees by sectors and that's more straightforward than any of the current legislation," said Eva Polková, advisor for labour and legislative relations at the Confederation of Trade Unions (KOZ), an umbrella union body.

However, the labour reforms have not been welcomed quite so enthusiastically by third sector activists who have voiced disquiet over the issue of equality between state sector and private sector employees.

Helena Woleková, a former Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Family who now works for Space, an NGO concentrating on social policy, said that she was not pleased with the new legislation. She explained that it would give employees working in the state sector more advantages than those working in the private sector.

"The European Union has been pushing Slovakia to approve laws on public services and state services but even the EU is not clear on this legislation because its own experiences with it have not been very good," Woleková said. She added that there should be just one law that would define relations between an employee and an employer.

The new legislation would guarantee long-term employment security for state sector employees if they asked for it, as well as up to one year of further education to qualify for new jobs. Armed with this guarantee, public servants would be assured of their jobs in the state sector regardless of political changes in the country; indeed, civil servants could only be dismissed for a serious breach of working discipline, defined as wilful absence, abuse of company property and working privileges and other such serious offences.

According to Mária Buchtová, the head of labour relations at the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family, at present there are few 'experts' at the country's ministries - people who have served at district or county offices for more than four years and who have any depth of experience in their fields of work.

During the 1990's, it was common practice for incoming governments to dismiss civil servants appointed by the outgoing cabinet and fill the posts with their own candidates - often friends, family or people the government was indebted to.

"Even people at the EU say 'When you change civil servants after every election how can you have experts working in the state sector in Slovakia?'" Buchtová said. She added that private sector employees would not enjoy a similar degree of job security, because they earned more money than their state sector counterparts.

Another significant part of the labour legislation is that employees will be able to play a more direct role in decision-making on issues that might influence their future in any given company.

"This is undoubtedly positive. Unions will have better control over job-related issues in companies," Polková said. She explained that at companies with more than 20 workers, a council of employees would be established that would actively participate in deciding questions affecting work, from holiday time to management policies. The council would exist side-by-side wih existing unions, but would give workers a forum for discussion in companies where no formal labour organisation exists.

Polková added that one of the most important aspects of the new legislation was the cancellation of a document regulating part-time or outsourced work, known as the "Work Agreement" (Dohoda o pracovnej činnosti). Instead, all work will be performed according to a standard "Contract" (Pracovná zmluva) which currently regulates only full-time work.

At present, when an employer signs a Work Agreement with a part-time or external employee, he or she is not obliged to pay employee contributions to pension funds, health insurance or unemployment schemes. If the employer wishes to dismiss an employee, he or she is obliged to give only 15 days notice.

"Now, all employees will have only a Contract - that means their employers will be obliged to pay contributions to all social funds for them, they will have to give them three months' warning before they fire them as well as pay a further three months' wages in the event that an employee will have to leave the company as a result of changes in its organisational structure," said Buchtová. "This will really help an employee."

Despite the fact that the proposed labour reforms seem to be comprehensive, further plans for introducing a shorter working week, tax incentives and bonus schemes for employees could put an extra squeeze on the state budget, and thus may encounter stiffer resistance in cabinet. The government has already shied away from offering tax incentives to domestic investors, fearing a shortfall in corporate tax that would put extra pressure on the revenue side of the budget.

"We can talk about a 37.5 hour work week, which is standard in EU countries, bonuses for employees, tax incentives for those employees that would support social policy in their company and other issues," Polková said. "But right now, it's just not possible."

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