Trade unions oppose Employees’ Representatives Act

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Controversy over the proposed Employees’ Representatives Act is continuing to generate much debate among the social partners. The Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions is doing its utmost to defend the rights of trade unions and employees. However, the Ministry of Social Affairs remains adamant that the new Act gives employees more rights instead of reducing their rights.

Agreement has still not been reached over the draft of the much-anticipated Employees’ Representatives Act (EE0512101N), despite tripartite meetings and other activities initiated by the Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions (Eesti Ametiühingute Keskliit, EAKL). The confederation has warned the Ministry of Social Affairs (Sotsiaalministeerium) that the bill will impact negatively on the rights of trade unions and employees. For their part, the Ministry insists that the draft Act will, in fact, increase the rights of all employees.

Proposed draft legislation

According to the explanatory note to the draft legislation, the Ministry seeks to ensure that all employees have equal rights in relation to information and consultation. This constitutes a major departure from the current system. The existing legislation provides for two different types of representatives: unionised workers who have one nominee and non-unionised workers who can elect their own delegate. Both these representatives may engage in collective bargaining and should be informed and consulted accordingly. As such, however, no general representative of all employees exists. The draft law aims at designating one single nominee who is responsible for information and consultation practices in companies with more than 30 employees. This person would be elected at a general meeting of employees, and there is no automatic obligation for a union representative to be elected to this position. According to a public statement issued by the Minister of Social Affairs on 7 April 2006, the plan is to introduce a dual channel representation system, whereby the role of collective bargaining and information and consultation is no longer solely the remit of the trade unions, but will also be the responsibility of the trustee appointed to represent all employees in the company.

Reaction of trade unions

In November 2005, the Ministry of Social Affairs sent a draft of the Employees’ Representatives Act to the social partners for consultation. This immediately prompted strong opposition from the trade unions (EE0308101F). On 1 March 2006, the Ministry held a conference at the National Library, in an attempt to reach a compromise over the proposed draft. However, trade unions in the health, transport and railways sectors decided to protest against the draft bill. As a result, all parties agreed on the necessity of holding a tripartite meeting; this took place on 20 March after a new version of the Act was presented by the Ministry on 6 March 2006. One month later, EAKL presented its petition to the government and parliament, to which the Minister replied in his public statement on 7 April.

EAKL claims that the draft law does not correctly implement the EU Directive (2002/14/EC) establishing a general framework for informing and consulting employees (EU0204207F), nor does it adhere to the ILO Workers’ Representatives Convention (No. 135) and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (No. 98). In its analysis of the proposed legislation, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) confirms this non-compliance with the EU Directive. However, the Minister stated in his reply that the draft Act does comply with European and international law, adding that he does not find the arguments of EAKL to be convincing. The Chancellor of Justice (Õiguskantsler), Allar Jõks, has not commented on the issue, since it is impossible to issue an official opinion on the draft legislation at this point. In its last petition, EAKL argued that the draft Act must give adequate legal guarantees to representatives, including equal treatment for union and non-union nominees.

On 7 April, the Ministry’s Deputy Secretary General for Labour Policy, Janno Järve, confirmed that the Ministry had analysed the requirements of the confederation. Indeed, the Ministry considered some of the demands surprising, since they were already met in one way or another in the draft Act or in existing legislation (such as in the Trade Unions Act). Nonetheless, he conceded that some principal differences remain, specifically the role of the union nominee in the information and consultation process.

Other issues

There are a number of other issues concerning the draft Act. First, EAKL is against reducing the free time granted to the trade union representative from their principal job of representing 500 employees, from 40 to 24 hours a week. In addition, EAKL insists that financial resources should be provided for training, expert advice and legal assistance. According to the draft Act, employers should only cover the costs of training.

A more serious source of disagreement lies in the fact that EAKL would like to maintain the present situation, where both the trade union representatives and representatives elected by a general assembly of employees co-exist and have equal rights. The confederation also argues that representatives who are not members of a trade union should not to be considered as equal partners, since they lack the knowledge and resources regarding particular issues, such as employing experts or taking matters to court. EAKL are due to discuss plans for possible protest action soon.

Marre Karu and Liis Roosaar, Praxis – Centre for Policy Studies

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