There’s a crisis of legality engulfing the EU, says Professor Keith Ewing. The Greek industrial relations system is now ‘vulnerable to collapse’, ‘destabilising’ the human right to freedom of association while wages established by collective agreements have been slashed. Unprotected workers being “liberated” to sign away minimum terms and conditions of employment. More
The year in Europe was dominated by the reverberations of the continuing economic crisis, which hit hardest in Greece. Labour laws have been amended in several European countries, often as integral parts of austerity measures pushed through to bring down budget deficits. This has eroded trade union rights across the region, and at the same time social dialogue was often perfunctory or strained. Anti-union discrimination was again widespread in 2011, even in some countries with long traditions of industrial relations, but particularly in Georgia, where neo-liberal economic reforms have set back the rights of employees and trade unions; in Turkey, where union activities are heavily restricted; and in Belarus, where Lukashenko’s regime continues harassing and intimidating independent trade unions.
Within the European Union (EU), Greece has been at the centre of the eurozone debt crisis. In a bid to reduce its debt, and with membership of the eurozone precluding any opportunity to devalue its currency, the Greek government – pushed by the memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund (the ‘troika’) – has instead had to pursue an ‘internal devaluation’, i.e., reducing wages and living standards sharply.
This situation has had consequences in terms of trade union rights in relation to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Changes were introduced to the rules on collective bargaining in the autumn with the new system prioritising enterprise level bargaining and not just sectoral or occupational agreements. It has also allowed associations of persons to enter into bargaining agreements, a measure targeted at smaller enterprises. Union bodies have seen some of these moves as destabilising the industrial relations framework and weakening the role of trade unions.
Although at their most stark in Greece, these issues have also been faced by trade unions in Portugal, which also required a bailout and where the government is effectively pursuing an internal devaluation. Hungary and Romania are other EU member countries which in the face of the financial crisis have implemented far reaching changes to their respective labour laws that particularly undermine national and sectoral level collective bargaining systems, to the detriment of working people and trade unions. EU and national court decisions related to minimum-wage bargaining procedures in Ireland or demands on Portuguese collective bargaining arrangements (even if the product of joint trade union/employer decisions) have been enacted in the similar spirit of erosion of established social dialogue institutions instead of using them to resolve the problems….
Dismissals for trade union membership and activism have been reported in many central and eastern European countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Macedonia, Poland and Serbia. Western Europe is not immune either, with dismissals reported in Belgium. A lack of confidence in the legal mechanisms to protect union rights is unsurprisingly apparent in Belarus, Kosovo and the Russian Federation. In Albania and Moldova weak enforcement by the labour inspectorate is also at issue.
These remain challenging times for the labour movement in Europe, with austere economic policies threatening to undermine the role and relationships of trade unions.
The rising wave of policies against working people in Europe
Grigor Gradev, PERC Executive Secretary
The pressures on labour relation systems continue to lead to a dramatic loss of trade union and worker rights. The main trends identified in 2010 have systematically intensified and set new ’records’ in 2011.
The situation for workers has only been aggravated by the nature and targets of the so-called rescue programmes imposed and implemented by the “Troika” – EU, ECB, and IMF in a number of EU member states. In 2011 we also witnessed the readiness of governments in other countries to be guided by the same approaches to address the challenges of the crisis.
The drive towards unilateral policy-making and drastic measures has a profound impact and long-term consequences for national and European systems of social dialogue along three main lines:
The attempts to bypass social partners and established mechanisms of dialogue have led to the outright rejection of joint positions, proposals or normative drafts prepared by trade unions and employers.
Governments increasingly proceed on that basis to try to discredit the rationale and undermine the architecture of collective and individual labour relations which underscore social peace, opening instead the gates of social and political unrest.
Second, the unilateral policy approach was extended to the international level. Opinions or advice provided by specialised bodies such as the ILO expressing concern over violations of fundamental labour standard related to reforms undertaken, have been ignored in a number of cases.
And third, the rising number of instances where previously traditionally negotiated solutions and regimes of operation are increasingly replaced by normative prescriptions and rigid legal frames to consolidate the results of the unilateral policies. The EU economic governance policies and particularly the latest “fiscal pact” provide particular momentum along these lines even for countries not severely hit by the crisis. Obviously, eventual corrections of extreme solutions imposed in this way will necessitate major political mobilisation and actions.
As expected, the policies and actions outlined above have changed the practice of social dialogue at different levels across the region, in a range of cases leading to a fundamental restructuring, and in extreme cases to a complete destruction of dialogue. The ensuing erosion of the legitimacy of the political systems and the political elites has been best demonstrated by the mobilisation of youth movements, demanding more direct democracy, growing in parallel to the mounting trade union protest actions. The EU controversial policies to the challenges of the crisis as well as the actions discrediting the European Social Model have depressed the trust of its citizens to the lowest level on record and turned it to convenient argument for regimes pursuing specific types of “democracy” and actions.