Wage protests emerge

September 2004 saw a number of strike and protests in private sector enterprises in Slovakia, focusing on unpaid wages and dissatisfaction with the pay outcomes of collective bargaining. This is unusual in a country where strikes have been rare and trade union protests largely confined to the public sector and responses to government policies.

Strikes are relatively rare in Slovakia, with the last significant stoppage being a railway workers' strike in January 2003 (SK0306101F). What industrial action there has been has often been directed at government policies and reforms (SK0312102N and SK0212101N), and organised by the sectoral trade unions and the Confederation of Trade Unions of the Slovak Republic (Konfederácia odborových zväzov Slovenskej republiky, KOZ SR). There have also been several protests in the public sector - especially in education and healthcare. However, recently the private business sector has begun to be a target of action organised by local trade union organisations. Furthermore, while in the past privatisation and restructuring were the main reasons for workforce protests at company level, recent protests have been caused by wage dissatisfaction.

In September 2004, trade unions at the Pohronské strojárne metalworking company located in the town of Hliník nad Hronom organised a strike, which lasted several hours, protesting at the non-payment of wages for June, July and August. The company management cited the parlous state of the company's finances and the need to increase productivity. It seems that the strike was successful, as Pohronské strojárne has now begun to clear its wage arrears. The trade union called off its action when the June wages were paid. Under threat of another strike, the employer promised to pay all wage arrears, upon which the employees received part of their July wages. The firm has promised to pay the August arrears in October. The chair of the sectoral METAL Trade Union (Odborový zväz KOVO) stated that if the employer did not keep its promise the employees would again strike but this time there would be no room for negotiation.

There is a very different situation at the SCP Neusiedler paper-mill company in Ružomberok, owned by the multinational Neusiedler group (based in Austria and ultimately UK-owned). According to some employees of this firm, the trade unions have failed them because collective bargaining has not resulted in adequate wage increases. In mid-September 2004, the employees set up a committee to defend their pay interests. According to the committee chair, senior local trade union officials represent only a small group of the SCP Neusiedler workers. Approximately 1,000 employees (about 90% of the total) signed a petition aimed at increasing the current hourly wage by SKK 50. The committee chair argued that Neusiedler employees in neighbouring countries receive much higher wages: for example, the average wage in the Hungarian subsidiary is about three times higher than in Slovakia. The company trade union at SCP Neusiedler opposed the committee’s activities and distanced itself from the protest action.

SCP Neusiedler management appears to have reacted negatively to the employees' initiative, threatening to dismiss the committee members immediately (reported in the SME daily newspaper on 18 September 2004). The management argued that the company's reputation had been damaged when the committee published allegedly incorrect wage data. The management representative also stated that productivity at the Slovak subsidiary was lower than at those in Hungary and Austria. At the same time, management declared its readiness to continue wage bargaining with a view to ensuring the employees a decent standard of living.

The workforce committee organised a protest meeting in Ružomberok on 23 September, attended by about 300 employees. The participants took the view that their interests would be better served by trade union representation than by an ad hoc committee and declared their intention to establish a new trade union organisation at the subsidiary, which would represent the workers as a whole. If the workers go ahead with their plan, the company management will have to bargain with two trade union organisations. This unusual situation may trigger further splits in the unified trade unions that traditionally represent all employees in Slovak companies.

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