Trade unions threaten to abandon tripartite dialogue

Poland’s trade unions and employer organisations signed a package of measures to combat the economic crisis in March 2009. The package was subsequently presented in the form of two draft bills, which provide for the implementation of some of the measures proposed by the social partners. However, the trade unions argue that the bills ignore the compromise that they had reached with the employers, and are threatening to end their participation in tripartite dialogue.

Anti-crisis package presented to government

In March 2009, the trade unions and employers involved in the Tripartite Commission for Socialand Economic Affairs (Trójstronna Komisja ds. Społeczno Gospodarczych, TK) presented a jointly agreed package of anti-crisis measures for consideration by the Polish government. In the trade unions’ view, the measures proposed in this package should have been embodied in a single legislative instrument that would remain in force for a specific period of time. This would help to prevent any exploitation of the current economic crisis in terms of implementing on a permanent basis measures that would be unacceptable, or at least unnecessary, under normal conditions.

The government, for its part, committed itself to drawing up a series of anti-crisis measures as soon as possible, based on the proposals of the social partners. However, work on the anti-crisis package continued into May 2009, giving rise to a degree of impatience among the trade unions. According to the unions, the final proposal eventually brought before the social partners failed to address the entire 13 points of the package drawn up by the trade unions and employers within the TK (PL0906019I). The unions promptly requested that the government’s proposal be supplemented.

Revised draft opposed by unions

In June 2009, the government presented a revised draft of the anti-crisis legislation for consideration by the lower house of Poland’s parliament (Sejm), in the form of two draft bills. This move generated strong criticism from the trade union side.

The Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ (Niezależny Samorządy Związek Zawodowy Solidarność, NSZZ Solidarność) addressed a letter to the employers in which it argued that the government had failed to duly consult and discuss its draft with the social partners before embarking on the legislative path. NSZZ Solidarność also alleged that the proposed solutions contravened the compromise reached by the trade unions and employers in March, resulting in unilateral gains to the benefit of the employer side.

According to the trade unions:

  • the government draft does not embody all of the solutions from the original package – for example, it omits the aid programmes for employees suffering due to the economic crisis. The social partners, however, had presented their package as an integrated whole and not as a menu from which individual solutions could be selected or discarded;
  • the government is pressing for a 12-month working time settlement period for all business enterprises alike, irrespective of their financial situation. The trade unions maintain that, in this way, all employers will be able to extend working time and abolish overtime bonuses – in effect, to reduce employee remuneration as they see fit. In this context, the unions also contend that the extraordinary mechanisms envisaged in the March compromise were meant only for employers adversely affected by the economic crisis and not as across-the-board measures;
  • contrary to the authors’ intent, the employment stabilisation rules ultimately proposed do not limit the use of fixed-term employment contracts and, in general, place employees without long-term work at an even greater disadvantage.

The Chair of NSZZ Solidarność, Janusz Śniadek, considers such an approach as a cynical ploy to take advantage of the crisis and of the growing insecurity of employees by deregulating the Polish labour market and sneaking through a raft of legislative provisions that are detrimental to workers. The possibility of applying provisions that are disadvantageous to employees in companies that have not been adversely affected by the economic downturn undermines the compromise reached by the social partners.

Trade union demands

Under the current circumstances, the trade unions are demanding that:

  • the possibility of applying a 12-month working time settlement period be limited to companies adversely affected by the economic crisis;
  • limitations on the use of fixed-term employment contracts be incorporated into a separate legislative act, as agreed between the trade unions and employers;
  • guarantees of financial support from the state budget be instituted for labour market funds;
  • remuneration for work in a reduced working time system be guaranteed at the level of the minimum monthly wage.

The trade unions have also warned that, if the government does not take their demands into account, they will suspend their participation in the regional social dialogue commissions (Wojewódzkich Komisji Dialogu Spolecznego) as well as the TK.

Employers welcome draft legislation

The employer organisations seem to be far more pleased with the draft legislation proposed by the government. They believe that the range of measures should be promptly passed into law in their current form. At the same time, the employers insist that, after a year of operation, the package will be reviewed and systemic limitations on fixed-term employment contracts and on working time will be put in place.

Employer groups are now lobbying for the adoption of the legislation before the summer break, despite the fact that the most recent consultations within the tripartite TK have failed to achieve an arrangement acceptable to the trade unions. In some regions around the country, meanwhile, trade union representatives have already pulled out of the local social dialogue commissions.

Commentary

The simmering conflict over the anti-crisis package is yet another sign – following the strikes by customs services (PL0805019I) and disagreements over the struggling Polish shipyards (PL0807029I) – that relations between the current government and the trade unions are rather strained. Although it is difficult to apportion blame for this situation, it is becoming clear that the concept of bilateral, as opposed to tripartite, social dialogue is attracting more proponents. As regards the package of measures intended to soften the impact of the economic crisis, it is obvious that something along these lines must be adopted; however, controversy persists over its exact shape, while the timing of its adoption remains unclear.

Rafał Towalski, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)

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