PASSENGERS in Slovakia might soon be affected by a battle over the travel perks that bus drivers have enjoyed for the past 60 years but which might now disappear because of changes being made to state subsidies for public transport. Bus drivers and employees of bus companies nationwide are contemplating a strike to pressure the authorities to maintain free travel for employees and discounts for their families.
The situation escalated after the Transport Ministry failed to issue a directive providing for perks for employees of bus companies for 2010. The employees’ union has failed in its effort to have the perks embedded in collective agreements with employers, and is now ready to take tougher action.
Meanwhile, the Association of Bus Transporters, which unites almost all the bus companies in Slovakia, has said that the employers in fact agree with all the demands of the trade union, KOVO, but say it is simply knocking at the wrong door. The bus companies argue that pressure should be put on regional governments to incorporate the cost of the perks into the subsidies which they provide for public transport. However, the regions, which subsidise local bus transport based on so-called contracts on activities of public interest with the bus companies, claim that the discounts should be a matter of agreement between the union and the bus companies.
On May 14, bus company employees started a nationwide ballot to decide on possible strike action. The union claim their demands for the perks are justified.
“These employee discounts have existed for 60 years and were presented by employers as a huge benefit for employees,” Anton Mifka, deputy chairman of KOVO, told The Slovak Spectator.
He said that the wages of bus company employees had been defined taking into account these employee discounts and that today they have low wages – €620 net, on average. Mifka added that the employees spend quite a lot of time away from home and that their working schedule frequently changes.
If the benefits are scrapped, the union say it envisions compensation in the form of a wage increase of about 20 percent.
“Such compensation could cover the loss that would emerge after the cancellation of the benefits,” Mifka said.
Meanwhile, the presidents of Žilina and Trenčín Regions said they had no problem with preserving the perks, but that their counterparts from other regions should also agree, according to the SITA newswire.
In terms of what a strike would mean in practice, the union says buses simply would not run. The nationwide voting over the strike involves about 30 bus companies and was due to last until May 21. The union is confident that employees will support the strike.
Defending the employee discounts, Mifka also noted that railway employees still enjoy similar discounts and that miners or forestry workers, for example, get some fuel or raw materials for free.
“Such benefits also exist in other countries,” Mifka told The Slovak Spectator.
The Transport Ministry, through its regulation, defines a pool of people who are eligible for such employee discounts – along with employees and their families, beneficiaries also include pensioners, physically disabled people and students. Currently, however, the regions define the fares and this is where, according to Mifka, the problem has emerged. The regions are now demanding that the bus companies end employee discount fares because the resulting increase in income will mean they can pay lower subsidies for public transport, he concluded.
Yet the head of the Association of Bus Transporters, George Trabelssie, said that he himself would support the strike.
“Our company is interested in preserving discounts for employees and their families,” Trabelssie said, as quoted by SITA. “They are a significant stabilising factor.”
According to the Sme daily, the bus companies employ about 10,000 people, and that their wives, husbands and children are also eligible for discounts. At the beginning of each year, beneficiaries have to purchase a €10 card.
24. May 2010 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová