Public sector reforms contested

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In August 2002, the implementation of public sector reforms in Portugal led to protests, strikes and other trade union activity in areas such as health, justice, education and local administration. Trade unions are considering calling a general strike in the autumn.

In August 2002, there was a high level of protests, strikes and other trade union activity in the public sector, mainly in reaction to public sector reforms implemented or proposed by the new coalition government of the centre-right Social Democrat Party (Partido Social Democrata PPD/PSD) and the right-wing People's Party (Partido Popular, CDS/PP) which came to office in March. The reforms aim to introduce greater efficiency in the public sector (which grew rapidly with the expansion of the welfare state), along with liberalisation of markets and new forms of governance, at a time when users are increasingly demanding in respect of the quality of public services.

In May, the new government announced a number of measures to address the mounting public deficit, including restructuring, a freeze on public service recruitment and possible greater mobility for civil servants (PT0206101N). A government order laid down guidelines for assessing the need to renew current fixed-term contracts in public sector, and at the same time for restructuring public departments and institutions. A further measure was announced, providing for employees and civil servants in public services or bodies which are wound up or merged, to be categorised as 'surplus'. Also relevant here is the publication in July of the preliminary draft of a new Labour Code, which would replace most current labour legislation by bringing existing provisions together in a single text, while amending some of them (PT0208101N). While the Code will apply to the private sector, the amendments proposed include new measures on absence from work, which is a topical issue in certain sections of the public sector.

Employees and trade unions have reacted to the various reforms and to other recent employers' initiatives in a number of different parts of the public sector. In local government, the National Union of Local Government Employees (Sindicato dos Trabalhadores da Administração Local, STAL) - affiliated to the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral de Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP) - has reacted negatively to the possible privatisation of certain municipal services, such as water supply, because employees may be transferred to non-equivalent jobs after privatisation, and it claims that this will not improve the quality of services. There have also been a number of specific disputes in particular local councils, for example:

  • STAL is demanding that Viseu municipal council abandon a new continuous working day arrangement, with only a 30-minute lunch break, because employees do not want their lunch break called into question;
  • at Oporto municipal council, STAL has criticised the results of a social audit carried out by the council, which, according to the human resources manager, shows a high level of 'absenteeism' in 2001. STAL states that the level of staff absence is the result of low levels of education, accidents at work and the poor working conditions of some employees; and
  • at Lisbon municipal council, employees and unions have reacted against the high number of precarious employment contracts.

During August, education trade unions called public attention to a number of issues and sought negotiations with the Ministry of Education to address them. The main grievances are that

  • each academic year the number of teachers who do not find a job is increasing owing to Portugal’s low birth rate. There are now tens of thousands of teachers without jobs, with unemployment among them having risen by 27% in 2002 compared with the previous year; and
  • recently established municipal boards have been given an involvement in assessing teachers - a development challenged by the Northern Teachers’ Union (Sindicato dos Professores da Zona Norte, SPZN).

The health sector also witnessed considerable mobilisation during August 2002:

  • several strikes were held by hospital doctors in various parts of Portugal, calling for overtime payments based on an improved pay scale. The Portuguese Medical Association (Ordem dos Médicos) is also demanding new regulations on providing medical treatment, the provision of guarantees on disciplinary action, and a clear hierarchy to be established within medical teams; and
  • the Union of Portuguese Nurses (Sindicato dos Enfermeiros Portugueses, SEP) is opposed to the privatisation implicit in new hospital management legislation, both because it believes that a merely curative approach to public health endangers prevention, and because the recruitment system is increasing the amount of job insecurity.

Internal administration services were considerably affected by numerous strikes that took place during August, extending into September, at 'Citizens’ Shops' (Lojas do Cidadão) and services which process the legalisation of foreigners and immigrants. Employees with precarious contracts in these services are seeking to be included in the permanent staff. According to the National Federation of Public Service Unions (Federação Nacional dos Sindicatos da Função Pública), the strikes received massive support.

At a joint meeting, the two main trade union confederations - CGTP and the General Workers’ Union (União Geral de Trabalhadores, UGT) - expressed the same views on public sector employees, especially regarding support for the continuation of existing fixed-term contracts and opposition to the designation of surplus staff. They argued that decisions concerning these issues must be discussed by the government and unions. At different times, both union confederations have talked of a possible general strike being called in autumn 2002, not only on behalf of public sector employees, but for workers in general. They have made such a possibility subject to negotiations on the preliminary draft of the new Labour Code and the reform of social security (PT0207103N), and on the general labour situation.

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