Greece: Public opinion and social dialogue on labour market reforms
Ahead of further negotiations on the terms of the Greek bailout, two recent surveys are directly linked to the issues under negotiation and reflect the views of public opinion. The government has also organised tripartite meetings with social partners in an attempt to seek mutually acceptable solutions.
Within the context of the last bailout agreement between Greece and the International Institutions (European Commission, European Central Bank, European Stability Mechanism, International Monetary Fund) signed in July 2015, the legal framework to change labour relations in Greece is under consultation and is expected to be completed by the end of September 2016. This framework for change is one of the conditions for the payment of the second tranche of the loan agreement.
Because of this, there has been a social dialogue process and an intense debate on the upcoming changes to the labour law focusing mainly on:
- collective dismissals;
- the mechanism of setting up the national minimum wage;
- the collective bargaining system at national, sectoral and company level;
- the right to strike;
- trade union law.
Findings from the GSEE public opinion surveys
In May–June 2016, GSEE conducted a nationwide quantitative survey involving telephone interviews with 1,000 people. According to the survey results, 84% of respondents believed that redundancies would not contribute to economic growth. The share of respondents against dismissals was 68% for those aged 18–24 years, 84% for those aged 25–44 years, 87% for those aged 45–64 years and 84% for those aged 65 years and older.
Responding to the question of what is regarded as most important for the economy including debt sustainability or the end of austerity, 74% replied the end of austerity, 17% said debt sustainability and 9% did not reply.
When asked which social category was the biggest ‘loser’ in the recent (interim and fiscal) measures, 38% of respondents said the self-employed/independent professionals, 27% pensioners, 19% wage earners, 6% public servants and 10% did not reply.
A second telephone social survey carried out by GSEE in June 2016 with 1,201 participants found that 88% of respondents agreed with the restoration of collective bargaining as it was before, as well as with the National General Collective Agreement (EGSEE). The restoration of collective bargaining was supported by all professional categories including 82% of the self-employed and 90% of farmers.
As regards undeclared work, 85% of the respondents considered that strict controls and heavy fines would help to reduce the phenomenon. Also, 61% believed that forcing companies to employ a minimum number of staff depending on the type and size of the business would help to combat undeclared work, and 51% considered that rewarding those reporting violations of labour legislation should be another measure.
Ministry of Labour initiatives and the results of social dialogue
To find the best way to implement the agreement with the International Institutions, the Minister of Labour, Georgios Katrougalos, set up an eight-member committee of experts in April 2016 to carry out a study on best practices on labour issues in Europe. The committee’s report was to be delivered to the government on 12 September 2016.
On 12 July, Mr Katrougalos organised a tripartite meeting with five national social partners – GSEE, the Hellenic Federation of Enterprises (SEV), the National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce (ESEE), the Hellenic Confederation of Professionals, Craftsmen and Merchants (GSEVEE) and the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE) – to create ‘a single social front on labour issues’.
In view of the government’s autumn negotiations with the International Institutions, the five organisations signing the EGSSE agreed on a common statement setting out five key positions on labour issues. These can be summarised as:
- ‘best practices’ should be considered those that are in line with the European social model and the protection of social and labour rights that define the identity of Europe (text of principles signed by European organisations of social partners on 27 June 2016);
- reconfirmation of everything that was agreed at the tripartite meetings under the auspices of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on 30 September 2014 in Geneva and on 26 November 2015 in Athens – texts that are an integral part of the present text concerning mandatory sectoral agreements, no changes to the collective dismissals framework, and the legal prohibition of lockout;
- maintenance of the minimum wage and the 13th and 14th month salaries;
- the need for social dialogue and the restoration of free collective bargaining to determine the statutory legal minimum wage;
- the need to modernise Law 1264/1982, which refers to workers’ associations and their functioning to deal with misapplications without calling into question the right to strike and the constitutional protection of union activity.
It was also decided that before the negotiations with the International Institutions and the passage of new legislation, these points should be elaborated through three additional tripartite social dialogue meetings.
Mr Katrougalos deemed the results of the meeting on 12 July to be a ‘social and political agreement for the creation of a social front with national characteristics in the field of labour relations’, recognising, at the same time, that the negotiations in September would be difficult. But although the social partners agreed the five points, their statements and positions after the meeting differed from the joint agreement.
GSEE's position on the forthcoming changes
GSEE’s stance has remained constant throughout the crisis. Since 2010, it has supported the same positions concerned, among other things, with:
- determination of the minimum wage through EGSSEs;
- restoration of sectoral collective employment agreements and scalability;
- no liberalisation of the collective dismissal process.
GSEE’s priority is to comply with what was mutually agreed between employers and employees at the tripartite meetings in Geneva and Athens, and has called for consistency in terms of the stance of all those involved in these meetings.
Among the points agreed in Geneva were that:
- the legal framework for collective dismissals in Greece should be in line with European Union and international standards;
- legislation on employer lockouts should remain unchanged (that is, they will be banned);
- national law on the protection of trade unions should be in line with the EU and its practices.
At the corresponding meeting in Athens, it was agreed that:
- a tripartite social dialogue should be developed in which collective autonomy and the results of the dialogue will be respected by all;
- EGSSEs should have full and universal effect;
- negotiations should return to the sectoral level;
- collective employment agreements should be scalable.
Positions of the employer organisations
Some days after the joint statement, SEV expressed scepticism and doubts over what had been agreed with the other social partners. It argued that:
- company-level collective employment agreements should take precedence over all others;
- international labour conventions should be implemented in respect of arbitration, with the abolition of the unilateral recourse to arbitration;
- the law on leave for trade union purposes and declaration of strikes should be reviewed.
ESEE reacted to SEV’s new position, inviting the social partners to respect their signature and defending the need to maintain a common front on the labour issues. It also took a favourable position on granting 13th and 14th month salaries as is done today. ESEE did not reject the increase in the percentage of workers from 5% to 10% to be considered ‘collective redundancy’, arguing that this referred to only a small number of big businesses.
SEV responded that it had simply published its own detailed approach on labour market issues. Mr Katrougalos stressed that SEV’s approach did not in fact break the national negotiating position on labour issues and expressed his optimism.
Opinion of the Economic and Social Council
After a thorough dialogue between the social partners and within the Economic and Social Council of Greece (ESC), this multi-partite social dialogue institution issued an opinion in May 2015 (ESC Opinion No. 306) on the proposed labour law; however, the law was not subsequently developed and was not voted on. Although there were various disagreements between social partners for specific provisions in the ESC opinion, there was a generally positive attitude regarding the restoration of the national collective bargaining as binding and without any restrictions, as regards the determination of minimum wage by the parties themselves and not by the state. There was also agreement in relation to resetting the extension mechanism of sectoral agreements, so as to bind employers who employ 51% of workers in the sector or profession concerned.
The social dialogue in Greece is ongoing and a host of statements and discussions are expected before the labour reforms are passed. A crucial moment will be the delivery of the experts’ report to Mr Katrougalos, as their conclusions will be taken into account in the negotiations and legal procedures. Nonetheless, the view of the majority of the Greek people, as reflected in both GSEE surveys, should play an important part in the decision-making process. The surveys’ findings show that the majority of Greeks do not agree with measures such as the liberalisation of collective redundancies, supporting the restoration of collective bargaining and especially the EGSEE.