Government and UGT unions agree on employment contract system in the public sector

In May 2008, the socialist government and the trade unions affiliated to the trade union confederation UGT reached an agreement on the employment contract system for the public sector. However, the trade unions affiliated to the trade union confederation CGTP rejected the agreement. The agreement sets out provisions for the public sector that are similar to those covering the private sector in relation to working conditions and labour relations.

Law no. 12-A/2008, which came in force in March 2008, established two types of employment relationship in the public sector – by appointment (limited to the core functions) and by employment contract. It states that the system governing employment contracts in the public sector will follow the provisions of the Labour Code (LC), albeit adjusted to assure public interests (PT0705019I).

Subsequently, the government opened, in April 2008, a new round of negotiations on the employment contract system in the public sector (Regime de Contrato de Trabalho em Funções Públicas, RCTFP). On 27 May 2008, the government reached an agreement with the Trade Union Front of Public Administration (Frente Sindical da Administração Pública, FESAP) and the Technical Civil Servants’ Union (Sindicato dos Quadros Técnicos do Estado, STE) affiliated to the General Workers’ Union (União Geral de Trabalhadores, UGT). On 29 May 2008, the Council of Ministers approved the draft bill n. 209/X on the RCTFP, which will be under public discussion until the end of June 2008.

For the second time in the process of reform of public sector, agreement with FESAP/UGT trade unions was crucial, giving the government legitimacy to take steps towards greater harmonisation of public and private sector regulations. This time, the STE/UGT also signed the agreement, which represents a major shift from its previous critical position, which includes participation in the May 2007 strike against the general content of the reform (PT0704069I).

However, the Common Front of Public Administration Unions (Frente Comum dos Sindicatos da Administração Pública, FC), affiliated to the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP) did not sign the agreement. The main points of disagreement are the new rules concerning dismissals and the possibility of weekly working time flexibility up to 50 hours. Since the beginning of the negotiations FC/CGTP had been threatening to organise a strike against the government proposal, to take place during the first week of June 2008. Furthermore, FC/CGTP accused the UGT trade unions of betraying the public sector workers, by signing the agreement with the government.

The RCTFP draft bill encompasses a large part of the regulations already established by the LC, some of which have been adapted, in addition to some of the legislation in force in the public sector. It is expected that the new system will cover around 500,000 employees.

In the domain of labour relations, the main innovations concern the right to collective bargaining and to conclude collective agreements in the public sector. The government explains that having adopted the employment contract as the common rule of an employment relationship in the public administration, it follows that those who have an employment contract have the right to be covered by collective agreements. Thus will be a substantial change in the regulation of public employment which is, at the present, exclusively statutory. Two types of collective agreements are envisaged: career collective agreements (applicable to a career or a set of careers, regardless of the bodies or offices where the workers are integrated); and public employer collective agreements (applicable to individual public institutions).

In the domain of working conditions, the provisions of the LC also apply, although with adjustments. Adaptability of working time will follow the LC provisions, although maintaining daily and weekly duration limits (seven and 35 hours, respectively). The duration of fixed-term contracts will be limited to three years. Further, employees will be entitled to demand early retirement at 55.

One of the more controversial issues is the dismissals system: the reform introduces greater harmonisation of the public and the private sector systems, and may therefore undermine the typical expectations public sector workers have concerning job security. In fact, the government proposes to apply to the public sector the provisions of the LC in relation to dismissals for failure to adapt (Art. 405 LC) reformulating some of them, in line with the reality of the public sector. One of the new provisions relates to the assessment of a worker’s failure to comply with fixed and formally accepted goals i.e. failure to adapt (Art. 406 LC), and sets out that the assessment will be based on the public sector performance appraisal system (PT0708039I). This formulation, according to FESAP/UGT and STE/UGT, will prevent subjective assessments and thus unfair dismissals, and was one of the conditions for signing the agreement.

Commentary

The measures agreed between the government and UGT trade unions and included in the government draft bill will introduce a radical change into the public sector employment system in relation to a number of issues, in particular dismissals, working time and collective bargaining rights. The rules concerning dismissals are the most controversial insofar as they provide that a civil servant with two consecutive negative evaluations (performance appraisal system) is subject to a process of investigation that might result in dismissal on the grounds of failure to adapt. However, the approval of this system of convergence with the private sector regulations will be related to the ongoing reform of the Labour Code, a problem that the parliament will have to address in the near future. Therefore it is likely that CGTP trade unions in the public sector will continue their protest.

Maria da Paz Campos Lima, Dinâmia

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