Unions oppose reform of early retirement scheme
In November 2008, the Polish parliament passed legislation reforming the retirement scheme whereby certain occupational groups are entitled to retire early. The changes mean that only about 250,000 workers will be eligible for early retirement, around a quarter of the current figure. Trade unions strongly oppose the reduction in the scope of the early retirement scheme and have organised various protests.
Draft bill on early retirement
On 29 September 2008, the government concluded work on a draft bill reforming the system of enhanced early retirement, whereby members of particular occupational groups – such as miners, steelworkers and some transport workers and teachers – may retire early on grounds of their strenuous work. A reform of the system carried out in 1999 envisaged that enhanced early retirement would be possible only until the end of 2006. However, in 2005, parliament extended the validity of the existing regulations until the end of 2008. Resolving this issue is thus a matter of urgency: otherwise an institutional vacuum will occur, whereby from 1 January 2009, no occupational group will be entitled to early retirement, even those for whom an early end to their working lives is generally accepted to be necessary.
The bill reforming the early retirement pensions was submitted to parliament, which adopted it on 6 November in the form proposed by the government. The legislation provides that, from 1 January 2009, women aged 55 years with a 20-year employment history and men aged 60 years with a 25-year employment history will be eligible to retire early and receive a ‘bridging’ pension until they reach full retirement age. However, this provision only applies if the workers were born after 1 January 1948 and have worked at least 15 years in harmful conditions or performed work of a ‘special character’, such as jobs imposing particular psychological or physical demands.
Trade union reaction
While preparing the new law, the government consulted the social partners. The issue was discussed at full sessions of the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs (Komisja Trójstronna do Spraw Społeczno-Gospodarczych), as well as during more than a dozen meetings of the Commission’s joint problem-solving teams on social insurance, economic policy and the labour market. Despite the numerous meetings, no consensus was reached: while trade unions advocated the maintenance of the current early retirement privileges, the government decided to reduce their coverage radically.
Trade union dissent on the issue came to a head on 29 October 2008 when, following a session of the Tripartite Commission, members of the three trade union organisations represented on the Commission – the Trade Unions Forum (Forum Związków Zawodowych, FZZ), the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarnosc’ (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy ‘Solidarność’, NSZZ Solidarność) and the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ) – remained in the offices of the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy (Ministerstwo Pracy i Polityki Społecznej, MPiPS) demanding a meeting with the Prime Minister, Donald Tusk. They did not leave the ministry building until 08.30 the next day. Prime Minister Tusk refused to meet with them on the ministry’s premises and proposed a meeting at the ‘Dialogue’ Centre for Social Partnership (Centrum Partnerstwa Społecznego ‘Dialog’, CPS Dialog).
The failure to reach an agreement on the reform, as well as the problems involved in organising a meeting with the Prime Minister, exacerbated the unions’ protests. On 5 November, FZZ, NSZZ ‘Solidarnosc’ and OPZZ organised a demonstration of several thousand people in front of the lower house of parliament (Sejm) to protest against the reduction in the number of workers eligible for early retirement. They submitted their demands to the speaker of the lower house, calling on parliament to reject the bill and demanding that the reformed scheme take into account factors such as night work, work in noisy conditions and the ‘special nature’ of teachers’ work when assessing entitlement to early retirement. The next day, also in protest against the changes, rail workers stopped railway traffic in the cities of Katowice in southern Poland and Bydgoszcz in northern Poland.
The government’s reform will reduce the number of people eligible for early retirement to 250,000 persons from more than one million at present. It is not surprising that this has led to protests from groups that are to lose their privileges.
The future of the legislation passed by parliament in November 2008 is still uncertain. The law requires the signature of the country’s President, Lech Kaczynski, to come into force, and he has expressed reluctance about the changes. However, if President Kaczynski refuses to sign the law, he would contribute to the abovementioned institutional vacuum. Furthermore, despite his reluctance about the specific form of the new legislation, the President Kaczynski has argued that too many workers currently benefit from early retirement. It is, therefore, probable that the new law will enter force on 1 January 2009 and that the pressure exerted on the President by trade unionists will fail to change anything in this respect.
Piotr Sula, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)