First agreement for social welfare institutions

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April 1997 saw the conclusion of the first collective agreement covering Portuguese social welfare institutions, where conditions of employment were previously governed by state regulations.

Recent years have seen a reduction in the role of government intervention in Portuguese labour relations. The tendency now is for the parties involved to have secured full freedom to negotiate as they please. Statistics show that in 1992 some 30% of regulations governing working conditions in Portugal originated from the state ("Relatório de conjuntura", Ministry for Training and Employment (MQE), 1992). Such regulations have in particular governed conditions for employees of private social welfare institutions (Instituições Particulares de Solidariedade Social, IPSS), which include educational and social work establishments.

The main obstacles to direct sectoral collective bargaining between private social welfare institutions and the unions have been twofold: their small size; and the fact that, because they were under state administration, they could not be subject to collective bargaining since they lacked the autonomy that employers' associations have enjoyed as social partners for negotiating the employment relationship.

Although some years ago private social welfare institutions were allowed to combine into unions, federations and confederations (Decree-Law 119/83 of 25 February 1983), it is only with recent legislation that they have been given the power to negotiate and enter into collective agreements (Decree-Law no. 224/96 of 26 November 1996). This move was fully supported by the trade unions. The unions have nevertheless called attention to the urgent need for a substantial increase in state subsidies granted to such institutions so that they might improve the services they provide to the community.

At the end of April 1997, private social welfare institutions and a number of trade unions negotiated and signed a collective pay agreement, covering approximately 40,000 employees (in education, infant teaching, help for the elderly, social work and health). The National Federation of Education Unions, which represents a large number of infant teachers and teaching assistants (affiliated to the UGT) claimed that it was a "historic agreement" for the sector. The chance for the social partners to carry out direct negotiations with one another - knowing and understanding as they do the reality of the workplace - will enable the pay, working conditions and careers of these employees to catch up with other sectors. Until now, without access to bargaining, employees in private education, for example, have been left far behind. Between 1985 and 1996, labour regulation directives were limited to making a few adjustments, without introducing the changes needed to professional grading, career structures, working hours and so on.

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