Public conciliator's activities in 2004 examined

During 2004, 20 applications to resolve collective disputes involving almost 60,000 employees were submitted to the Estonian public conciliator Most disputes were over wages and collective agreements, and the great majority were resolved positively through conciliation.

According to the Collective Labour Dispute Resolution Act, the final resort in collective labour dispute should always be the public conciliator (Riiklik Lepitaja) if an agreement is not reached at lower levels. The role of the conciliator is to effect conciliation of the parties, identifying the reasons for and circumstances of a labour dispute and shall propose resolutions. If the public conciliator is not able to find a solution that will satisfy all parties, and all legal possibilities of resolving conflict peacefully have been exhausted, the public conciliator has the authority to allow the parties to organise a strike or lock-out. According to the law, strikes and lock-outs that are not preceded by negotiations and conciliation proceedings are unlawful (EE0402102F).

The institution of the public conciliator has been in operation since the second half of 1995. Besides the national-level public conciliator, there are also 25 local conciliators. The public conciliator is appointed for a three-year term by the government on the basis of a joint agreement among the Ministry of Social Affairs (Sotsiaalministeerium) and central organisations of employers (EE0310102F) and trade unions (EE0308101F). The activity of the conciliators is based on the Collective Labour Dispute Resolution Act and Collective Labour Dispute Conciliation Statute.

During the nine years since its establishment, there have been almost 300 cases referred to the public conciliator. The applicants have mainly been representatives of employees and of trade unions. In recent years, employers' representatives have been calling in the public conciliator more often. Most of the disagreements concerned result from employees’ dissatisfaction over pay issues, or relate to the conclusion or fulfilment of collective agreement (EE0402102F).

  • In labour disputes over pay, in most cases workers do not agreed with the amount of wages paid or with the established minimum wage level. Also problematic are the conditions of payment of extra remuneration and the share of bonuses (extra remuneration) in the total wage. Another source of dissatisfaction is high variability in wage levels in comparable jobs. It is quite usual that the wages in comparable occupations in different sectors may differ by a factor of more than five, while differences between enterprises may be as high as 10-fold. This is not surprising, as average wages vary by a factor of around 1.8 between counties.
  • With regard to cases related to collective agreements, the main complaints include employers not being interested in concluding collective agreements and therefore delaying negotiations, and problems with the implementation of agreements. According to the relevant legislation, collective agreements are documents negotiated through bipartite dialogue and there is no legal responsibility on either side to conclude an agreement. The result is that in many employers’ organisations delay talks or even refuse to negotiate.

Public conciliator’s activities in 2004

According to statistics from the public conciliator’s office, 20 applications were presented to the conciliator in order to resolve collective labour disputes in 2004. Collective labour disputes in which the help of the public conciliator was sought arose in healthcare (EE0409102F and EE0410102N), road transport (EE0408102F), railways (EE0410101N and EE0410103F), education and culture (EE0501103N), energy and forestry. In total, these disputes involved almost 60,000 employees (more than 10% of total employment).

The main reason for collective labour disputes in 2004 was dissatisfaction with negotiations over wages. However, many disputes arose from the fact that employers did not engage in collective bargaining. According to the secretary of public conciliator’s office, Merle Aro, this represents a return to the early years of the public conciliator’s activities, when such applications were in majority. An example cited is that, in 2004 trade union organisations in the forestry sector became more active and this alarmed employers, which had little understanding of the nature of collective bargaining or the activities and goals of trade unions.

Most of the applications referred to the conciliator in 2004 ended with a positive result. According to the public conciliator’s office, agreements were achieved in 82% of cases (80% in 2003). The greatest achievement of conciliation in 2004 was the conclusion of a two-year collective agreement in healthcare sector. The negotiations in this sector received much public attention and there was considerable public support for the workers' demands (with fears that if these demands are not met, many specialist medical staff will emigrate).

At the end of 2004, the government and the Estonian Employees’ Unions’ Confederation (Eesti Teenistujate Ametiühingute Keskorganisatsioon, TALO) reached consensus in principle over minimum wages for employees with higher education working full time in a position demanding higher education and financed from the state budget (EE0501103N) The government ratified the agreement on 13 January 2005. The last such agreement between the government and TALO was signed in October 2001, with subsequent negotiations producing no results. In order to seek public attention and support, TALO organised Estonia’s first genuine strike in December 2003 (EE0312103F). In 2004, TALO did not threaten strike action during the negotiations, and the settlement was achieved with the intermediation of the public conciliator

Despite the very high percentage of positive results achieved through conciliation in 2004, workers in the railway sector held a six-day strike. A settlement was achieved only after the Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions (Eesti Ametiühingute Keskliit, EAKL) (EE0308101F) and the Estonian Employers’ Confederation (Eesti Tööandjate Keskliit, ETTK) (EE0310102F) intervened and successfully proposed the creation of a joint conciliation commission (EE0410103F). A conciliation procedure began in road transport sector in 2004 (EE0408102F). Here, negotiations over a new collective agreement started in September 2003, but ran into difficulties over minimum wage increases. The trade union is demanding an increase in the hourly wage to EEK 39.10, while employers are offering only EEK 20.00. Both parties have declared that they wish to find solutions and sign a collective agreement, which would be extended to the whole sector as it has been in recent years. As any industrial action in transport, especially in passenger transport, would affect everyday life very strongly, commentators suggest that employers may be more open to negotiating and concluding agreements in this sector.

Commentary

Estonia has a good legal basis for harmonious labour relations. Various laws concerning industrial relations were adopted and amended over the country's transition period, and various institutions dealing with this area were established. The main institutions dealing with conflict resolution are labour dispute commissions, the public conciliator, local conciliators and the courts. Labour disputes are generally resolved through direct negotiations between employers and employees.

The negative side of conciliation is that the Collective Labour Dispute Resolution Act does not lay down any activities related to the avoidance of labour disputes, such as preventive activities. Public or local conciliators intervene in labour disputes only after the parties to the conflict call them in. A positive side is that there are local conciliators who are aware of local problems and able to solve the dispute more objectively.

The main reason for the relatively 'peaceful' industrial relations in Estonia has also been the fact that trade unions are still relatively weak. Union density and collective bargaining coverage are both very low. Due to this fact, unions do not have significant financial resources and therefore cannot afford to have strikes. Further, the administrative capacity of unions to organise strikes is low. However, during recent years, and especially in 2004, the public visibility of trade unions has increased. (Kaia Philips and Raul Eamets, University of Tartu)

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