Trade union commitment and challenges for revitalizing the protection of workers' rights

The international conference“Trade union commitment and challenges for revitalizing the protection of workers' rights”, organized by PODKREPA CL and EZA was held from 25 to 27 May 2017 in Sofia. The event gathered together nearly 50 participants, including high-level Bulgarian officials - Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Deputy Executive director of Employment Agency - employers’ representatives, Presidents of the two nationally representative trade union confederations, PODKREPA and CITUB, trade union leaders and experts from Poland, Romania, France, Belgium and Bulgaria. The seminar was supported by the European Union.

The Conference was opened by Veselin Mitov EZA Vice president and International secretary of Podkrepa who presented the main point and the strategic objectives of the EZA Educational program for the current period, as well the objectives of the present forum – to provide a platform for analysis and discussion on the launched by the EC package of social policy proposals regrouped under the so-called EU Pillar of Social Rights. Attendees were addressed by the President of PODKREPA Dimitar Manolov, who expresed his satisfacion with the actuality of topic and outlined some of the most important problems, faced by Bulgaria and the European Union, directly related to the unfair wealth’s distribution leading to the inequalities’ rise  and social model‘s deformation. In addition, he expressed with great concern his anxiousness about the social reality of Bulgarian workers – poverty and social exclusion are in spreading, everybody is feeling as to be part alike in “an experiment for survival” – because of the low pay and working conditions’ level. The Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Policy Ivailo Ivanov noted the importance to initiate measure for qualitative increase of living standards and for limitation of inequality, stressing on the fact that the newly appointed Bulgarian government is committed to undertake effective steps for negotiation of a transparent minimum wage mechanism and to provide for a better economic environment. Other speakers from that political panel underlined that Bulgaria, as well Europe are needing new modern policies to re-start economic growth in regard to preserve and develop our unique Social model with equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, appropriate and sustainable social protection. Solidarity address and topical issues mention the president of CITUB Plamen Dimitrov.

In the first panel on the national situation the Bulgarian presentation highlighted the huge pay and inequality gap and the disparity in the economic development, drawing conclusions as follows:

achieving economic growth without social development means aggravating inequalities and poverty.

the adoption and implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights will be an important step towards enhanced social dimension of the EU, but it may also turn in an instrument for officialising social divide – in the case when is will be applied only for the Eurozone’s countries

TUs should rise voice and open that sensitive question to prevent that risk.

Speakers from the second panel underlined that the European Pillar of Social Rights is one of the most important initiatives for the European citizens in recent years, respectively Belgium and France citizens expect to see “more Europe”: decisive actions and solutions to long-lasting and persistent problems: such as inequality in distribution / 2 % from richest are profiting

from 10 % of the added value/, ageing, migration. In addition, it was pointed out that the principles of the Pillar need to be defined in a clear and transparent manner. It is important to take into account the view of social partners about the boundary between European and national competence within the Pillar, in the context of the different economic, social and fiscal condition of Member States, not only for Eurozone countries.

The question about labour’s aspects in implementation of the policies in the different areas which are part of the Pillar should be an integral part of the debates. In short- Trade unions’ strategy should to be pro-active, based on solidarity, with clear determination to stop social dumping and Europe’s divide to Eastern and Western part, providing opportunities for a larger number of people to decent and fair living and employment conditions, as well for full development and utilisation of their potential. Expert from Poland added that trade unions should to focus efforts especially on pay raise – hence - TUs demands should to be cantered in two concrete direction:

ü  Wage growth to be at least in line with productivity growth

ü  Collective bargaining to be used for restoration of the balance between work and business

In her intervention Cartel Alpha’s representative spoke about the destroyed by the IMF system of industrial relation in Romania - resulting in no sectoral level agreements and in 70 % drop in coverage. She stresses to the fact that exploitation of workers in Eastern Europe is continuing, western companies are treating differently labour force, there are not complying with standards and rules.

In summary – interventions and presentations sparked a broad discussion on main topics: Europe need a new modern Social Pillar which to reflect all changes and has to provide for growth, for adequate quality education, enforcing labour standards and professional skills competences – to make our Union the best place to work and live. European Social Pillar should be not only for Eurozone, it should provide measures to decrease the difference in income, which is actually the worst problem of cohesion in Europe. Trade Unions should demand actively social rights to be guaranteed and collective bargaining to be a principle that would guarantee employment dignity and rights of every worker and citizen.

On the second day, the attention was focused on the rapid development of new technologies, on the emerging new phenomena such as crowd work, shared economy and hence the new working conditions and professional requirements. During the debate were outlined concrete proposals for upgrade trade unions’ activities:

§  in our digital age and sharing economy, the differences between qualified and low qualified employees will increase and therefore a new approach in labour protection, professional training and education is needed.

§  -the new forms of employment will increase work precarity, which means it will make difficult for trade unions to protect those persons.

§  It was highlighted the need of extensive researches and economic development forecasts without which it is impossible to have prognostications for labour force needed.

§  minimum standards for rights and social protection should to be imposed through European Social Pillar.

Participants expressed serious concern about the further labour market and income policy’s fragmentation – deepening the so called “digital divide”, underling that for the moment and because of the very dynamic situation TUs have not a concrete reply to digital era and indusyry4.0, but it high time to act and to opening up to new people on the labour market who are also experiencing new forms of employment such as being self-employed or working in internet platforms. TUs initiatives should be generalized to all workers, whether they have a labour contract or are self-employed, because there is potential for their exploitation and vulnerabilities. New forms of employment, among which job sharing and employee sharing, crowd employment, self-employment, freelance work, etc., are an answer to the demand for

flexibility. These new forms can have positive influence on working conditions, but they also can go together with job insecurity, social and professional isolation, and limited chances for career development. Instead of saying that these forms threaten the European social model, TUs may observe the possibility to welcome them and incorporate them in their structure in an appropriate organizational manner.

The last panel on the way forwards represented an open discussion with high level of interest on behalf of participants. Main conclusions may be summarized as follows:

Ø  Consultation on the European Pillar of Social Rights are very important; the discussion initiated by the Commission is timely and well-focused.

Ø   The theme is equally important for all EU Member States - all Member States should be involved.  

Ø  Social dialogue is extremely important and can provide real solutions.

Ø  Education and professional training play a crucial role and has an important influence on many of the other elements covered by the pillar.

Ø  It will be important to find the right balance (e.g. between social and economic dimension, between exploiting the opportunities offered by new work patterns and protection of the workers' rights).

Ø  Trade unions have to open up to all workers, whether they have a contract or are living new forms of employment such as being self-employed or in working on digital platforms.

Ø  Trade unions have to open up to the new partners, making alliances with other civil society actors. Hence, TUs should shift applied till now strategies for strengthening of their internal legitimacy delivering concrete results for workers.

In conclusion trade unions have to reconnect to solidarity and to put human and social issues at the heart of the design of their strategies. To the social and civil dialogue, TUs should add active lobbying, capacity for mobilisation and cooperation. That new strategy should oppose to austerity and dumping, to Europe’s divide -providing for equity in distribution, for decent income and for good working, living conditions. Because TUs are demanding for Social Europe, but it should to be our Common Europe! -that was the statement shared among participant.

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