Tripartite Commission debates impact of economic crisis

On 28 January 2009, the presidium of the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs convened for a meeting chaired by Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Waldemar Pawlak. The debate centred on counteracting the effects of the economic crisis; as expected, there was some divergence between the solutions put forward by the employers and the trade unions. However, given the scale of the crisis, both sides seem to be eagerly seeking a viable solution.

Scale of economic crisis

Evidence that the global economic crisis has arrived in Poland can be seen on the Warsaw stock exchange, in individual companies and at the local (poviat) labour offices. At the same time, the downward trend in the unemployment rate, although still strong in mid 2008, appears to have been reversed. In December 2008, the proportion of vocationally active Poles registered as unemployed at the labour offices reached 9.5%, compared with 9.1% in November and 8.9% in October 2008. Projections for the coming months are less than optimistic: the Central Statistical Office (Główny Urząd Statystyczny, GUS) reports that, as at late December 2008, some 361 employing establishments had announced plans to lay off a total of 36,900 employees.

Under these circumstances, the declaration by Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Waldemar Pawlak – who is also the country’s Minister for the Economy – about the need to concentrate primarily on preserving jobs, rather than on caring for unemployed people, was almost universally welcomed. However, some of the miners’ trade unions – for instance, the August 80 Free Trade Union (Wolny Związek Zawodowy Sierpień 80, WZZ Sierpień 80) – seem oblivious to the realities of the crisis and have put forward strong demands concerning pay to the directors of Kompania Węglowa, the holding company operating a number of collieries.

Social partners discuss solutions

Possibility of more flexible working times

To date, possible methods for dealing with the crisis have been debated at the session of the presidium of the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs (Komisja Trójstronna ds. Spoleczno-Gospodarczych), within the Tripartite Commission’s dedicated problem-solving teams, as well as on the bilateral dialogue platform. During the session of the Tripartite Commission’s presidium on 28 January 2009, representatives of the government, the Polish Confederation of Private Employers Lewiatan (Polska Konfederacja Pracodawców Prywatnych Lewiatan, PKPP Lewiatan), the Polish Crafts Union (Związek Rzemiosła Polskiego, ZRP) and the Business Centre Club (BCC) argued in favour of more flexible working times as an instrument which should be deployed at this time of economic crisis. Their proposal involves extending the basic period for working time settlement to one year, from the three-month period currently in force. In practical terms, this would mean that an employee, where deemed necessary by an employer, could legally work four hours a day during one month and 12 hours a day during the next month for the same pay. In this way, it was argued, employers would have more freedom to increase or decrease output in response to changing market conditions. Such a change in the working time rules would require an amendment of the Polish Labour Code, the primary framework of employment law.

Views of trade unions

Trade union representatives taking part in the session objected to the idea of reforming the labour law in response to the economic crisis. The unions involved included the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy ‘Solidarność’, NSZZ Solidarność), the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ), and the Forum of Trade Unions (Forum Związków Zawodowych, FZZ). In their opinion, the laws currently in force are totally sufficient for agreeing on such matters at the level of individual establishments. Nonetheless, the trade union representatives did not completely exclude the possibility that they may agree to more flexible regulation of working times in the Labour Code and to individual working time accounts – which was the other proposal put forward by the employers – provided that the employers agree that a fixed-term employment contract may run for no longer than 18 months.

Building a common front against economic crisis

The social partners’ desire to work together in building a common front against the economic crisis has been confirmed by consecutive meetings at the bilateral level, held on 2 February and 10 February 2009. Between these bilateral meetings, the two dedicated problem-solving teams of the Tripartite Commission for labour law and collective agreements and for economic and labour market policy, respectively, continued their own work, agreeing that the following matters merit further discussion:

  • subsidising jobs using public funds;
  • accelerating the use of European Union funds;
  • increasing the funds available for loan guarantees to business enterprises;
  • introducing a 12-month settlement period at enterprises with trade union or employee representatives;
  • financing some remunerations using public funds;
  • recognising social benefit packages as a source of labour law.

Commentary

Despite some differences in the positions of the employers and the trade unions, it is possible that consensus may be reached. It appears that the scale of the looming economic problems has mobilised both sides of industry, if not to reach a compromise, at least to earnestly seek alternative solutions. The next bilateral meeting was scheduled for 16 February 2009. According to the statements made to date, the social partners were planning to unveil their joint proposals for handling the economic crisis at this meeting.

Piotr Sula, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)

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