Massive demonstration against proposed labour reforms

On 5 June 2008, around 200,000 persons participated in a demonstration organised by the trade union confederation CGTP against the ongoing labour reforms in the private and in public sector and, in particular, against the government proposals on the revision of the Labour Code. This is the third time that the present socialist government has faced a major demonstration organised by trade unions.

On 6 May 2008, two weeks after the government presented its ‘Proposals for a new consensus on the regulation of labour relations system, social protection and employment’ (PT0806019I), and on the eve of a new round of negotiations with the social partners, the more representative Portuguese trade union confederation, the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses, CGTP ), announced at a press conference that it intended to hold a national demonstration  to protest against the government’s proposals. The demonstration was due to take place on 5 June 2008, and the CGTP called on workers from the private and the public sector to participate. The decision was taken by the CGTP national council, which also decided to prepare a plenary with all delegates and union leaders in all regions and to intensify the discussion in workplaces with regard to the revision of labour law. Furthermore, CGTP stated that the possibility of a general strike had been discussed but not scheduled, since the negotiations with the government are ongoing.  

The CGTP’s criticisms of the government proposals had already been presented at a press conference held on 24 April. The CGTP presented an overall negative assessment, a position contrasting with the approach of the General Workers’ Union (União Geral de Trabalhadores, UGT) which did not make a general assessment, preferring to highlight the positive and the negative aspects of the government proposals (PT0806039I).

According to the statement presented by CGTP, at the 24 April press conference, the ongoing revision of the labour code ‘is called to serve the economic interests of employers, controlled by them and help them, exacerbating the problems of low wages and work precariousness’. The trade union confederation accuses the governing socialist party of presenting proposals that are similar to existing Labour Code provisions which the socialist party, when in opposition five years before, had denounced. It highlighted the gravity of the abandonment of the principle of more favourable treatment (through collective agreements), and stated that the proposals would result in a weakening of collective bargaining and deepening precariousness.

The first round of negotiations, which began on 7 May, was completed on 4 June. The government will return to the social partners with the final proposal. Alongside this process, CGTP is convinced of the importance of organising worker protests and increasing the pressure in relation to some of the more controversial measures proposed. In the poster that announced the 5 June national demonstration, under the motto of ‘This revision of labour legislation cannot pass! This revision shall not pass’, the following main reasons to protest were highlighted:

  • the proposals will result in freedom to dismiss employees with the argument of ‘failure to adapt’ based on, according to the CGTP, subjective reasons and according to the interests and convenience of employers in the private sector. In the public sector, the CGTP believes that employees will be able to be dismissed after a negative performance evaluation over two consecutive years, based on evaluation and decision-making criteria defined and imposed by the government (PT0805029I);
  • the proposals will result in dismissals procedures being made easier and the time available to workers to defend their case will be reduced. The employer will also not be obliged to reintegrate the worker into the workplace if their dismissal is ruled unfair;
  • the proposals will result in the expiry of collective agreements, and this will undermine more favourable rights than those defined by law;
  • measures less favourable than those defined in the Labour Code will be introduced, thus subverting the principle of more favourable treatment;
  • daily and weekly working time will be made more flexible, thus increasing working hours and reducing wages;
  • the proposed annual ‘working hours account’ will allow employers to avoid paying workers for overtime worked;
  • precarious work (independent work and fixed-term contracts) will be made mainstream, with employers making minimal contributions to social security.

On 5 June 2008, around 200,000 workers from the private and the public sector answered CGTP’s call and participated in a demonstration in Lisbon. For the third time in their current mandate, the socialist government was confronted with a major demonstration (PT0711019I; PT0804029I), this one being the largest to date.

Commentary

The success of the demonstration in terms of participation highlights CGTP’s capacity to mobilise workers and the lack of popularity of some of the proposed measures among workers in general, and public sector workers in particular, who will also be affected by the changes in the Labour Code (PT0806029I. Although it is not expected that the government will accept CGTP demands in the coming days, it might have to consider some retreat, to guarantee a more peaceful implementation of the reform and to maintain a popular image, bearing in mind the forthcoming elections in 2009.

Maria da Paz Campos Lima, Dinâmia

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