Portugal: Innovative social dialogue to combat precarious work in the public sector

A programme to combat precarious work in the public sector was launched in 2015 by the Portuguese Socialist government. Various features of the PREVPAP scheme reveal an innovative approach to participation and social dialogue. This article details the programme, its implementation, and the role and initiatives of the relevant actors in the process.

Escalation of precarious work in the public sector

Since the mid-2000s, austerity policies have imposed budgetary constraints and restrictions on recruiting public sector employees on permanent/open-ended contracts, while facilitating redundancies.

These constraints reinforced the resurgence of ‘inadequate’ employment relationships, which have taken several forms:

  • prolonging short-term contracts beyond their term
  • using short-term contracts when there was no justification for them
  • using contracts for providing services for the performance of functions corresponding to full-time workers subjected to hierarchical authority and discipline of public services or entities
  • recruitment using active employment policy measures, such as the employment-insertion contracts to meet the permanent needs of public administration

Most new employees are recruited on different forms of temporary contracts, creating a precarious employment environment for them. 

The escalation of precarious work and subcontracting in the public sector became a major political concern with the issues of combating job insecurity and promoting employment a priority for the Socialist government since it came to power in November 2015. Furthermore, the parties supporting the government (the Portuguese Communist Party, the Green Party and the Left Bloc) also viewed this as a high priority.

The government decided to tackle the problem by launching an extraordinary programme of regularisation of precarious employment relationships in public administration (Programa de Regularização Extraordinária de Vínculos Precários na Administração Pública – PREVPAP).

A three-phase process to combat precarious work

The government has established three key priorities for the public administration:

  • modernising the public sector
  • acknowledging the importance of the exercise of public functions
  • improving the quality of public services

Through Article 19 of Law No. 7-A/2016 (PDF), the government pledged to establish a multiannual strategy against precarious work, set out in Law No. 42/2016 (PDF). Article 25 of the Law devises a ‘regularisation programme’ in public administration and in state-owned companies, targeting workers who perform functions corresponding to permanent needs, and subjected to hierarchical authority, discipline or direction, without a ‘proper legal employment relationship’. The detailed definition/implementation of the programme had three phases.

First phase

This included the assessment of precarious work in public administration. A report was published on 31 January 2017 mapping the types and incidence of temporary contracts in the public sector (PDF). The report identified more than 100,000 non-permanent contracts in the public sector. However, it did not provide information on whether these temporary contracts were justified, or whether they corresponded to genuine short-term contracts, provision of services or other regular temporary forms of employment.

Second phase

This included the definition of criteria and procedures of evaluation, and the beginning of the implementation phase. It included:

  • the definition of target groups
  • the methodology to identify the cases
  • definition of criteria and the competences of evaluation

Initiated by resolution No 32/2017 of the Council of Ministers (PDF), this phase was published in February 2017 and marked the beginning of PREVPAP. At this stage it was established that the evaluation of the requirements for access to the regularisation procedure would be carried out, at the request of the worker concerned, by a Bipartite Evaluation Committee (CAB) to be created within each government area. This would comprise government representatives responsible for Finance, Labour, Solidarity and Social Security, and of a member of the government responsible for the specific sectoral area concerned, plus trade union representatives. Ordinance No. 150/2017, published in May 2017, set out procedures for the committees, defining their remit as any irregular employment relationships existing from January 2017 to May 2017. For the sake of transparency and speed, the evaluation procedure would begin at the request of the interested party via the internet.

Third phase

This refers to the examination of workers’ requests, the CAB decisions and the integration of workers by the respective services, in permanent/open-ended contracts, after being shown to have been working in irregular situations while performing functions corresponding to permanent needs. This process was due to be concluded in December 2018.

The integration of the workers will require specific tender procedures and opening positions, a process to be regulated by Decree No.172/XIII, approved by the parliament and published in November 2017. It was expected to come into force, after being approved by the Portuguese President, in January 2018.

Innovative forms of participation

The process of deciding on the form of the PREVPAP programme and its implementation engaged, in various ways, two public sector trade unions:

  • the Common Front of Public Administration Unions (FC), affiliated to the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers (CGTP)
  • the Trade Union Front of Public Administration (FESAP) and the Technical Civil Servants’ Union (STE), both of which are affiliated to the General Workers’ Union (UGT)

These trade unions are represented on the CABs in state-owned companies, with trade union representation performed by the CGTP and UGT.

Workers’ committees (comissões de trabalhadores) are elected structures representing the workers in public sector areas/services or state-owned companies. They also play a role in the process. Like the trade unions, the workers’ committees are entitled to inform the services and the CABs about situations where workers, who are in precarious employment relationships, perform functions corresponding to permanent needs. This is a crucial competence of the committees in supporting individual workers to forward their claims, or where workers want to claim directly.

The popular movement and social media platform Precários do Estado (Precarious state workers) has been at the forefront of fighting for these workers. Under the motto ‘nobody will be left behind’ it has called for an encompassing and inclusive process of regularisation. This platform, assembling precarious workers of the public sector from diverse areas and professional profiles, has called for attention to be paid to all types of precarious relationships in all areas, including subcontracting and ‘bogus’ self-employment or ‘bogus’ independent work.

The platform has played four key roles:

  • raising awareness
  • organising and voicing precarious worker’s claims
  • helping them to present their case
  • suggesting political measures or adjustments to secure that the programme will be inclusive.

Commentary

The nature of temporary contracts is  inadequate for public administration work, which is of a permanent nature and corresponds to the performance of regular functions. So far there has been no indication about how many workers will achieve regularisation. The process of evaluation is complex and is expected to take until the end of 2018, at least. Moreover, there is as yet no public information about the total number of workers who have applied. The complexity of the process might also be increased by trade union and government representatives experiencing difficulties in reaching agreement. Also, even after a decision is made, it is possible that some workers not covered by the regularisation process will contest it.

Furthermore, despite the extremely positive trajectory of public deficit in Portugal, there are still heavy budgetary restrictions that might put pressure on the process. Precários do Estado will certainly play an important role and will, in some cases, share the same goal as the trade unions – that nobody will be left behind.

Nevertheless, the future of the platform is uncertain and it is possible that once this mission is accomplished, the platform will cease to exist. But it is also possible that it will remain active, formulating new claims for other groups performing regular work under irregular conditions in the public sector, and continuing to organise precarious workers in this sector, particularly young people, who are less likely to be members of trade unions.

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