Estonia: Latest working life developments – Q1 2017

Sectoral collective bargaining in the healthcare sector, changes to the dispute resolution mechanism and equal treatment for men and women in the workplace are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Estonia in the first quarter of 2017.

Collective bargaining in the healthcare sector

Healthcare is one of only two sectors in Estonia in which sector-level collective agreements are concluded (the other is transport). The groups representing both sides have spent more than a year negotiating a new agreement. Employees are represented by the Estonian Medical Association (EAL), the Union of Estonian Healthcare Professionals (ETK) and the Estonian Nurses’ Association (EÕL); employers are represented by the Estonian Hospitals Association (EHL), the Union of Estonian Emergency Medical Services and the Estonian Society of Family Doctors.

This round has been extremely difficult: the parties disagree over workers’ demands regarding wage levels and improvements to working conditions; in addition, they want the government to provide extra funding to ensure the quality and sustainability of Estonia’s healthcare system and to improve access to services. Insufficient finances are also the reason for the employers’ reluctance to accept the proposed increase in wage levels. However, on 21 March, the representatives of the healthcare sector, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Estonian Health Insurance Fund signed a letter of intent with the purpose of guaranteeing the sector’s sustainable financing. This should lead to a collective agreement.

Dispute resolution mechanism going through changes

In March, the government approved the amendments to the Individual Labour Dispute Resolution Act, which has remained almost the same for two decades. The changes aim at improving legal certainty, making the out-of-court dispute resolution process easier and clearer, while also giving the labour dispute committees more authority. The most important changes include:

  • the right to go to the labour dispute committees with monetary claims exceeding €10,000, which are currently accepted only by courts
  • the right to take issues related to working conditions to the labour dispute committees (for example, health and safety at work) and issues arising from a collective agreement (currently the labour dispute committees resolve only issues related to employment contracts)
  • new resolution mechanisms, such as written proceedings, conciliation procedures and agreement procedures.

It should be noted that, in practice, agreement procedures are already used (albeit informally) and there is no formal enforcement instrument.

The draft act will be discussed by the parliament and the changes should take effect as of 2018.

Equal treatment in the workplace

Issues of gender equality in general, and at the workplace in particular, were also in the spotlight in the last quarter. In March, the fifth gender equality monitoring report (PDF) was published giving insights into the opinions and expectations of Estonian residents on a variety of issues related to equality and social roles.

The report shows that, in the workplace, the most important issue is considered to be the level of wages and wage negotiations overall – 21% of women and 13% of men have experienced unequal treatment. Also, one-half of men and two-thirds of women still feel that men have better opportunities in working life in general, underlining women’s greater role in family life. It is believed that family and children are the major factors in restricting women’s careers, though there is increasing hope that women can reconcile family and work.

Estonia’s gender pay gap is still the highest among Member States (26.9% versus 16.3% in the EU28 in 2015 according to Eurostat data); the importance of reducing it has been affirmed by the European Commission and by relevant actors in Estonia. The government is hoping to monitor pay more effectively by developing a digital tool for the Labour Inspectorate to conduct initial inspections on equal pay in companies, on the basis of data that employers have already provided to the State (classification of occupation, gender and some additional variables). If the Labour Inspectorate discovers potential discrimination cases, it could then ask the employers concerned to conduct an equal pay audit.

Commentary

The next quarter sees the signing of the collective agreement in the healthcare sector. This should happen in April after the government decides its budget strategy. If the agreement is not signed, industrial action could be expected, as the healthcare workers have already organised one warning strike and have also expressed their readiness for another.

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