Better to protest, or negotiate?

UNION members are taking to the streets after a breakdown in negotiations over reforms to Slovakia’s Labour Code. The Labour Ministry has called the unions uninformed, while they retort that the decline in the economic and social status of employees has left them with no other choice but to launch protests. Unionists would like to see the existing Labour Code, which was shaped by the Robert Fico government, remain unchanged.

KOVO trade union members will march again.KOVO trade union members will march again. (Source: SME)

UNION members are taking to the streets after a breakdown in negotiations over reforms to Slovakia’s Labour Code. The Labour Ministry has called the unions uninformed, while they retort that the decline in the economic and social status of employees has left them with no other choice but to launch protests. Unionists would like to see the existing Labour Code, which was shaped by the Robert Fico government, remain unchanged.

However, the current government, led by Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, says that changes are crucial in order to inject more flexibility and fairness into the code. While employers have also expressed objections to the government’s proposed amendment to the code, they say they are committed to negotiations. The unions, by contrast, are now ready to go further, perhaps as far as a general strike or even a referendum.

“Being a woman you know how a woman protects her family so that she has more time for her children, to bring them up, instead of having to spend hours at work just to survive,” the head of the KOVO trade union, Emil Machyna, said in an appeal to Radičová as he launched union protests on March 28.

The prime minister said that there was still enough time to find a compromise since the Labour Code is due to be adopted only in May.

The Ministry of Labour has received hundreds of comments on the Labour Code from members of the public as part of a review process that ended on March 28. The ministry is now set to review the comments and eventually include some in the draft.

While Labour Minister Jozef Mihál is expecting a compromise over the code, the unions on March 31 were already halfway through a week of protests against some proposed changes to the code and what they called an “enormous increase in prices”.

“The decline in the economic and social status of employees continues at a [high] tempo, which is unbearable for employees and unions, but also for the citizens of Slovakia,” Machyna told The Slovak Spectator.

Machyna offered a list of complaints to justify the union protests: enormous increases in the price of basic foodstuffs, measures which are raising the tax and social burden of employees, and changes to the Labour Code to weaken the position of employees and unions.

The unions have 10 fundamental objections, including repeated limited-time contracts, increases to overtime work, the extension of employees’ probation periods, and the cancellation of simultaneous notice periods and severance payments, said Machyna.

According to Machyna, a minimal number of union comments on the draft have been accepted.

“We still stick to the opinion that it wasn’t necessary to change the Labour Code at all,” said Machyna, adding that the unions refuse to accept any compromise over points that weaken the legal and social status of employees.

The unions say they will continue with strikes.

“We are considering additional protest actions of a different nature; we do not exclude announcing a referendum or preparing a general strike,” said Machyna. “We want to protect human dignity at any price.”

The Labour Ministry, in its official response to protests held in front of the ministry and the Government Office, said the organisers perhaps do not have enough information on the economic development of Slovakia over recent years and about the steps the current government is taking to support low-income groups.

“Otherwise they would not protest today but three years ago, when prices in Slovakia were growing substantially faster,” said the release. “At that time, the unions openly supported the government of Robert Fico and its policies of wasting and stealing. The result was that over the past two years the indebtedness of the country grew by €2,000 per citizen.”

As for the increase in prices, the Finance Ministry said that world prices for food and oil are mostly to blame.

“If union leaders are blaming the government for the poor harvest worldwide and the conflict in Libya, they are attributing to it much greater power than it actually has,” said Finance Ministry spokesman Martin Jaroš, as quoted by SITA newswire. “A noisy defence of the people would have been justified at the time when there was shameless and unconcealed waste and theft, since public finances are the money of all the people.”

Employers object, but continue negotiating

Martin Hošťák of the National Union of Employers (RÚZ) commented that the unions are fighting for their privileges but added that he prefers the negotiating table to the street.

“We look at them [the union protests] as a way for [the unions] to communicate their disagreement with the proposal,” he told The Slovak Spectator. “However, we still believe that one can achieve more across the negotiating table.”

“The unions’ provocation of tensions in society is politicising the issue and is aimed at preserving union privileges and fulfilling pre-election agreements with Smer,” Hošťák, who is secretary of the RÚZ, commented. “I am asking why the unionists did not protest when under the previous government Slovakia’s indebtedness grew dramatically, cronyism and corruption were spreading, and EU funds and public finances were mismanaged?”

For Hošťák the problem with the Confederation of Trade Unions (KOZ) is that he sees it as effectively uninterested in solving the problem of 15-percent unemployment. KOZ’s declared interest in the protection of employees, he said, obscures its real motive: preserving union privileges, financial resources and the power of union bosses.

Hošťák also criticised the unions’ unwillingness to publish membership numbers, suggesting that in reality they might actually represent only a few tens of thousands of workers out of the more than a two-million-strong national workforce.

Branislav Masár, executive director of Slovakia’s Federation of Employers’ Unions (AZZZ), told The Slovak Spectator that he sees no room to preserve the existing Labour Code. The AZZZ submitted its comments on the code on March 28, when the process of interdepartmental review was wrapped up. In the next step, the Labour Ministry will process the comments and only then will the federation know which of its own contributions were accepted.

Masár sees progress in creating more room for social dialogue and collective bargaining within companies.

“However, we also welcome the cancellation of simultaneous severance pay and layoff notice, the prolongation of the trial period and weekly working hours, even if it is only for a selected group of employees,” Masár said, adding that the AZZZ still has many objections and has submitted 60 fundamental comments.

“For example, we disagree with the new definition of dependent work and the principle of merit when it comes to the notice period for all cases of layoff notice,” he added.

According to Masár, it is necessary to change the code so that the potential to create new jobs increases.

According to Hošťák, the draft proposed by ministers does not remove barriers to job creation, but contrives to retain the existing Labour Code’s extraordinary complexity. It does not equalise employment councils and unions, and does not address the problem of how representative the unions really are, he added.

In terms of what he sees as positives, Hošťák pointed to the cancellation of obligatory severance payments and the possibility of combining severance payments and notice periods. He also welcomed the widened opportunity to use limited-term employment as well as the permanent installation of Flexikonto, which is a long-term worked-hours account.

This is intended to manage employees’ working time flexibly during swings in production. It allows employees to stay at home on full pay, with the unworked hours recorded in individual accounts. Later, over a period of months or years, the employee is expected to work the hours in the form of overtime.

The RÚZ still has objections in the areas of notice periods and provisions regulating mass layoffs as well as minimum wage demands.

The proposed new code

The government says the new code will be more family-friendly, giving both employers and employees the option to work flexible hours based on their own needs.

The government is also proposing a shorter probationary period for employees in lower positions while designating longer periods for positions with higher pay.

The proposal provides an employer with the option of negotiating a flexible combination of severance pay and layoff notice with an employee, while the minimum notice period would depend on their number of years of employment with the firm or organisation.

According to the Labour Ministry, the law’s current form is unfair because it does not take into consideration the different status of employees based on their salary levels or positions in a firm. The ministry said the current law lacks flexibility in regards to employees changing jobs or seeking higher earnings.

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