Meaningful social dialogue as relevant instrument contributing to the integration of the Western Balkans

From 30th August to 1st September 2018 in Sofia, Bulgaria took place an International conference “Meaningful social dialogue as relevant instrument contributing to the integration of the Western Balkans”, organised by PODKREPA CL with the support of EZA and the EU. The forum took place within the EZA special project for workers' organisations in the Western Balkans "Strengthening social dialogue – shaping European integration" and brought together more than 35 participants, including seven high level trade union leaders from three Western Balkan’s countries, as well the Minister of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of EU and PODKREPA’s chairs and experts. Main topic on the agenda was the role of trade unions in promoting social dialogue in the context of Western Balkan’s integration to the EU.

During the official opening key political messages were outlined. Addressing participants, Veselin Mitov, EZA Vice-president and PODKREPA CL International Secretary, presented general objectives, underling that the successful story of any EU accession process is demanding implementation of a strong, well-targeted policy, focused on democratisation of the society and on the rule of law. Such policy may be successful, only when it’s building on trust among different social groups, and when is involving competent actors from civil society.  In that context, as well with the intention to provide detailed and prompt information about the role of trade unions in the accession process, PODKREPA CL organize the present conference.

In his opening address, the President Dimitar Manolov added that today’s forum is extremely important - PODKREPA initiate to spread it good practices and experience to other partners from WB just because by its foundation and origins, it has been a stepping stone for the Bulgarian integration to the EU.

Speaking to the participants, Minister Pavlova said that the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU was focused on several main priorities, but made a breakthrough in social policy and employment. Bulgaria has set high targets and achieved even more than expected. One of those achievements is that Bulgaria succeeded to re-activate the topic of WBs and to include it into the EU agenda. She underlined that Sofia Summit reaffirm an unequivocal support for the European perspective of Western Balkans. Sofia Agenda is committed to the European perspective of WB -as strategic choice, reinforcing connectiveness, mutual support. and communication in the region.

To those clear messages for cooperation and partnership, Norbert Klein added the experience of the special EZA project, particularly targeted to establish trust between partners, including promotion of common understanding on challenges, related to the inclusion of the EU dimension in the trade unions’ thinking and actions paths. He underlined. that a new culture for reaching consensus, support and respect should to be adopted, as well as more coherent approach and concrete actions should to be initiated to protect and expand civil society space for bringing concrete benefit for workers from WB. First, political panel concluded with the intervention of the vice-president of the EAPN, focussed on the EU social context – namely -on increased levels of poverty and social exclusion.

Ass. Prof. Jeliazkova underlined that the quality of the integration process depends on the internal restructuring of society and manifests itself in the social consequences: If it leads to worsening of living standards and to collapse of social rights – such integration is partial, incomplete, mainly with elitist characteristics. Thus, a clear message to participants was launched - EU integration can contribute to the improvement of the quality of life and for upward social cohesion, but only when it’s based on genuine societal consensus and on social partnership – in short – in one democratic society - dialogue is the only relevant possibility for positive changes.

After those important political contributions, was presented the Bulgarian system of industrial relations and the current development of social dialogue’s practices. From the presentation, it comes clear that in Bulgaria social partnership, consultation and negotiation had play a crucial role and were symbolic for country’s democratic changes, laying-out the basis for the new model of industrial relations, which late-on provides basis of the EU integration. In practice, it was not an easy way, - many controversial processes influenced BG’s road to EU integration. Very often PODKREPA find hard to protect workers’ interests – especially during enterprises’ privatization and legal harmonization procedures. Practically, EU accession in 2007 gives to citizens many new possibilities, the BG accession was supported by the biggest part of the population, even it was a national “goal - dream”, but today, deepened by the crisis and the continuing emigration, Bulgaria is not only in a demographic collapse, either is the poorest and most corrupted EU country. To overcome such a negative situation is a very difficult task, but at the same time – it is with vital importance for trade unions. In that sense, our efforts are to make social dialogue a more building institution; for better use of pull-push factors of incomes’ increase & workers’ protection; to provide trade union training for better expertise & bargaining capacity and to forge alliances with others social actors – in short to become an integral part of the discussion-making on the future of work. In addition, today’s work and social issues are not confined to national borders, but affect every people across borders. Therefore, for tangibly improvement of living and working conditions, unions should move beyond the employment-centred approach in order to push for upward convergence and social cohesion in Europe.

During the afternoon session, conference’s work focuses on national reports from Serbia, Macedonia and Albania, followed by a question guided plenary discussion. Every participating trade unions made its contribution, regarding the situation of social dialogue in the context of the integration to the EU. The national reports show similar trends and difficulties: social partnership in WBs counties is not well developed, its character is rather formal, national governments had leading role /especially concerning the accession process/, consultations are not conducted at regular basis – and the quality of information is very poor. Results from social partnership are modest- which limit the possibility to influence decision-making process. In addition, it comes that governments are not complying with points, already agreed between social partners. All speakers underlined that trade union from WBs are needing strategic support during the process of changing labour legislation under the conditions of EU accession. It was especially underlined that legal reforms during the integration process should not be introduced by government or parliaments without being previously discuss within the bodies for social and economic concertation, where participation of representative trade unions must be guaranteed. In addition, the European Social Rights Pillar is to be at the heart of the process of legislative harmonization in all its 20 priority areas to ensure decent minimum social protection floors in WBs candidate countries. The general message from national reports was: participating trade unions are welcoming and supporting the EU perspective, expressing readiness to be fully involved in the integration process. In this context, they highly appreciate the proposal of PODKREPA CL to share its experience. That will be helpful for them, because to be involved in setting legal frameworks is not an easy task. Second – trade unions express their need for EZA’s support for capacity building measures- with regard to improve their involvement in the tripartite dialogue and collective bargaining.

Work continued with individual answers to three concrete questions / summarized in the enclosed Roadmap for trade union actions to achieve an effective social dialogue and industrial relationship in Western Balkans Region/. At the end of the working day was presented a good practice of the two trade union confederations in Bulgaria - on 9th of May, the day of Europe, was held an International conference and was adopted Declaration “The Voice of Integration of the Western Balkans”. It was adopted under the auspices of the Bulgarian Presidency. It highlighted the importance and the need of true cooperation between trade unions in the region.

Second conference’s day was deducted to the future – it provides a real opportunity to every participant to express opinion, analysing possible social consequences, the impact on: vulnerable population, workers’ rights, social protection systems, social dialogue and industrial relations. Interventions prove that the engagement of trade unionists from WBs in the EU integration process is at a very high level. During talks, special attention was devoted to the role of social dialogue and social partners in the integration process. Trade unionists restated that Governments should listen to what the unions say and make all documents related to negotiations accessible to social partners.

The key suggestions from individual inputs, may be summarized as follows:

-  Balkans are a specific region, where living standards are not high, comparing to the other parts of Europe and that is not good for citizens, living there, but is also bad for Europe as a hole;

- Economic development, improvement of living standards, employment and social security are conducive to the peaceful regional coexistence;

- The process of WB’s accession to the EU may not undermine the social dimension, which should to be supported by adequate financial policies;

- EU social investments should be more visible, more efficient and more tangible, in response to the challenges that mobility and new technologies are imposing to today's industrial relations;

- European and national legal frameworks should open new opportunities for collective bargaining and minimum wages in our fast-changing world of work;

- Trade unions’ organizations from Western Balkans should be included as active partners in identifying the right skills needed for the new jobs, better planning and linking policies in the fields of education, training and employment resulting from digitisation and Industry 4.0 in the region;

- WB countries could set up national councils for European integration that would bring high-level political authorities and key civil society organisations together on a regular basis, with a view to making the process of EU integration more transparent and publicising it more widely;

- Social dialogue in WBs region is difficult – there is not political will for real partnership, corruption is another serious obstacle, because is deteriorating the society. Much more should be done to battle rampant corruption, organised crime and money laundering. Judicial independence is also crucial for the healthy democracy;

 - In addition, social dialogue is limited, because of the wrong political actions of national governments – in cases, when national policies are not relevant, social dialogue is also not relevant.

- Trade unions from the region should work together with ETUC, ITUC and brother structures for an upward convergence of wages and working conditions.

- Trade unions can play an important role by bringing the younger generations from different WB countries together for opening societal dialogue on a number of issues that are crucial for the future of the region;

- Trade unions from WBs need capacity-building measures/funding to support, strengthen and (where necessary) establish efficient and adaptable collective bargaining institutions and industrial relations, to enable social partners and companies’ and workers’ representatives, autonomously to negotiate wage increases and improvement of working conditions;

- Trade unions of the region may scope with the upcoming changes in the world of labour and should strive to reach the increasing group of workers with unclear labour relation and should particularly more open to cooperation with allies from civil society fighting for the same or similar purposes at different places.

- The creation of structural partnerships in the region can serve as a compass for during the integration process.

In conclusion, interventions were summarized - the effectiveness of social dialogue has been weakened by poor economic performance and the political instability in the region of WB. The EU accession would be a long-term process, but now – the clear European perspective is a catalyst for integration. Thus, with crucial importance is to involve social partners in the promotion of EU value and in the integration process.