Developing workers' organizations and strengthening their cooperation for integration in a competitive social Europe

From 13 to 15 June 2019 a seminar took place in Sofia / Bulgaria about "Developing workers' organizations and strengthening their cooperation for integration in a competitive social Europe", organized by PODKREPA (Confederation of Labour PODKREPA), with the support of EZA and of the European Union. The conference was held in the framework of the EZA particular project for workers' organizations in the Western Balkans and was attended by more than 40 trade union leaders and experts from Bulgaria, France, North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania.

Welcoming participants, Veselin Mitov, EZA Vice-president and PODKREPA CL International Secretary underlined the importance of the cooperation with EZA for the organization of similar events in support of social dialogue in Western Balkans. Dimitar Manolov, PODKREPA' s President, spoke about the measures, required to reinforce the EU social dimension and the role of the ILO, as world's driver and the guarantee of labour protection and a decent life for working people. Addressing participants, other speakers from that administrative panel underlined the efforts of the Bulgarian Presidency to unblock the process related to the European perspective of Western Balkan countries, prioritizing the connectivity in the region. The key message was that it is time for friendship, prosperity and reconciliation because a secure and stable EU includes secure and stable Balkans. The crucial second massage was that the European perspective may help to avoid further possible conflicts and promote up-ward convergence and improvement of living standards, as the EU places particular emphasis on cooperation with neighbours, the rule of law and civil society involvement. Thus, as the European integration will go hand-in-hand with regional cooperation is very important when harmonizing national and EU legislation to analyse all possible social consequences, especially their impact on workers' rights, social protection systems, social dialogue and industrial relations. In this context, social partners should be involved in setting legal frameworks and capacity-building measures, aimed at supporting upward convergence of working conditions and social inclusion, as well as developing efficient tripartite dialogue, social dialogue and collective bargaining.

According to the program, two presentations from EU member states there were made, namely from France - an EU founder - and Bulgaria, integrated in 2007. Those presentations explained the positive impact of EU core democratic and human values on social partnership – the culture of negotiation, readiness to find-out consensus, autonomy of partners, stability of social security systems, respect to law provisions, well-established structures for social dialogue at different levels, existing consultative mechanism and workers representation. Speakers pointed -it may not be denied - that the economic crisis had had severe consequences on working people in Europe. Today, corporations and multinationals have recovered, but workers haven't seen a pay rise in years, and their influence is stagnating. In fact, profits have grown at the expense of wages since the 1990s. At the same time, workers' involvement and power in the workplace was shrinking. The need to empower workers to express their views, influence decisions and enforce their rights collectively is often ignored. Those attacks on workers' and trade union rights, even on the European social model lead to growth  of inequalities within and between EU countries, putting our common democratic values at risk – all these are major concerns of trade unions, who have a responsibility to defend democracy at work - the most important achievement of the last century, based on peace, human, workers', social and environmental rights, on fair and equal living and working conditions including quality public services and education systems. National reports from the participating Western Balkans countries provided for a different perspective. Despite the positive steps on EU and NATO membership, the overall situation in North Macedonia is not improving. Weak institutions, coupled with the absence of a culture of dialogue and consultation, are rendering the situation of working people even worse than formerly. Despite the progress registered in terms of laws and regulations adopted, there is little impact in terms of changing mindsets and social dialogue practices. The country also suffers from continued high levels of unemployment, poverty, brain drain. Reforms in public administration, proactive investigations, prosecutions and final convictions in corruption and organized crime cases, including at high political level are demanded by national trade unions. But, as the so-called “clientelistic” behaviour is a trademark of the whole society, it affected the reputation and trust in trade unions. Thus, organizing new members, particularly in the new investments and MNCs become almost impossible.

Similar situation, except the significant decline in unemployment, was reported by the representatives of SS BOFOS, Serbia. Social dialogue remains very weak on all levels. Trade unions are not participating adequately in drafting and implementing economic and social policies. Tripartite dialogue at a national level is conducted at regular basis within the Social and Economic Council, but the problem is how to reach consensus and to implement the agreed decisions. Besides, industrial relations are very polarized with quite fragmented trade union scene - six representative workers’ organizations and only one representative employer. In result – serious difficulties in negotiations and conclusion of collective agreements, consequently - small coverage of employees with collective agreements. Trade unions are making efforts to raise the awareness of the importance of social dialogue, concerning make a step towards a genuine partnership.

The national report of Albania informed about a very contractual, high complicated political situation, because of the civil protests, which may provoke a civil war. It was noted that although since 2014, Albania has candidate status, it had not fulfilled the priorities set by the EU. In the field of social dialogue, the activity of the National Labour Council is not going regularly, bipartite and tripartite social dialogue remains weak. Trade unions have relative success in the protection of workers- they negotiated salary increases, improved health and safety at work and protection of miners and oil workers. Further improvements are required on issues such as human rights and the relations between employees and employers in private sectors. At the end of the working day, a presentation was made on digitalization and its implication on WB countries. The possibilities for trade union involvement in the process of job’s transformation, in training and re-qualification and on Health and Safety at work was discussed.

At the second day, participants exchanged on the ways to foster regional cooperation concerning advance social dialogue as an essential element of the European Social Model. It was noted that only such a model may provide for competitiveness, sharing of gains, enhanced economic prosperity and social well-being in the Western Balkans region. According to the interventions, this might be achieved only throughout the institutional and legislative improvement of the state institutions along with activities aimed at strengthening the capacities of national social actors to be engaged productively in social dialogue and in the EU integration process. Also, regional cooperation between trade unions should be deepened, because it is expected that the date for opening negotiations with the EU will speed up a positive reflection within Western Balkans societies and faster reforms. In that respect, workers’ organizations should be prepared to react adequately and to fit the European perspective.

During the conclusive round table several patterns for common trade union actions, as follows were mapped: develop regional networks and modern communication strategies; jointly organize public and/or internal meetings/events with other trade unions (in cooperation with European trade union structures); invite local/regional/national/European press; gather and disseminate positive examples and best practices to show the benefits of social dialogue; address specific needs in term of information, analysis or in-depth assessment of the framework and of the economic situation with regard to workers’ information & consultation at sectors and enterprise level.

In conclusion, Veselin Mitov summarized outcomes for national reports and discussions, underling that the integration of WB countries to the EU has no alternative and is a priority not only for political elites but for working people and their organizations, who are committed to do their best to guarantee them a decent life and sustainable perspective. He also reaffirmed the readiness of PODKERPA to support with expertise and advises every brother trade unions to meet these real challenges ahead – to be involved in reforms and with the integration process. At that respect, Mitov underlined the importance of EZA support - to provide an opportunity to exchange experience and to draw- up common responses.