Capacity building of workers' organizations – the future image of workers in the light of changing general conditions

On 6-8 August, 2020, the international conference entitled “Capacity building of workers' organizations – the future image of workers in the light of changing general conditions” was held in Vilnius / Lithuania. The conference was organized by the Lithuanian trade union ‘Solidarumas‘ together with the European Centre for Workers‘ Questions (EZA), with the financial assistance from the European Union. Despite the restrictions caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic, the conference was physically attended by participants from Poland, Latvia and Hungary. The welcome speech was delivered by Kristina Krupavičienė, Chairwoman of the Lithuanian Trade Union ‘Solidarumas‘.

During the plenary session, the first presentation on "Principles of Social Action in Society and Enterprise" was made by dr. Irena Eglė Laumenskaitė, associate researcher of Vilnius University about "Principles of Social Action in the Society and Company Level". The participants of the conference were most impressed by the speaker‘s opinion that the Lithuanian authorities are most afraid of returning emigrants, who, having gained the experience common in Western countries, are no longer willing to put up with violations of their rights, and the violations of trade unions,  conferred with the power to protect workers from employers‘ arbitrariness and abuse. Irena Segalovičienė, Social Affairs Adviser to the President of the Republic of Lithuania, assured the conference participants that President of the Republic of Lithuania H.E.Gitanas Nausėda, understands the role of social dialogue and trade unions in the life of the state, and their contribution in developing  the Welfare state and decisions relevant for all residents of the country.

The President and his advisers have already had several formal and informal meetings with trade union representatives. The President has submitted several amendments to the law to the Seimas taking into account the opinion of trade unions.

Irena Segalovičienė assured that the fruitful cooperation between the President‘s Office and the trade unions will be continued and strengthened.

Jonas Rasimas, Economic Governance Officer at the Representation of the European Commission in Lithuania, made a presentation on "Employee Representation in a Changing World of Work", elaborating on the European Commission's opinion on the situation in Lithuania.

He noted that the European Commission has constantly been pointing on the poor situation of social dialogue in Lithuania, which results in and deepens other social problems. Therefore, despite good economic growth indicators, social exclusion is increasing, and there are almost no signs of poverty rate going down. What is more, teachers, doctors and other public sector employees receive insufficient remuneration, and pensioners receive too small pensions given in relation to the level of development.

Jonas Rasimas revealed that the European Commission is currently planning to adopt a plan to rescue the economies of the European Union member states affected by the pandemic by providing large loans with low or zero interest. At the beginning of the new year, these funds should reach Lithuania as well. Therefore, the engagement of trade unions in ensuring a transparent and fair distribution of funds is of crucial importance. He specified that these funds are not related to the plan entitled the DNA Plan of the Future Economy adopted by the Government.

In the morning of the second day of the conference, moderated by Kristina Krupavičienė, the issues of strengthening social dialogue were discussed.

Tomas Tomilinas, Member of the Seimas, expressed his joy at the recent strike declared at the company Bolt, which is the first strike in Lithuania in the so-called 'digital platform company‘, in which employees work without physically knowing each other and without even physically having met their employer. In his opinion, this is an important historical turning point in the Lithuanian workers' and trade unions' movement.

According to him, the ruling coalition understands the importance of social dialogue and trade unions, and therefore postponed the adoption of the new Labor Code so that employers and trade unions could negotiate for better results to be incorporated into its articles. The first National Collective and Branch Collective Agreements have been signed. Residents have been given the opportunity to allocate part of their personal income tax to trade unions, without competing with other non-governmental or charitable organizations.

Prof. dr. Boguslavas Gruževskis, Head of the Labor Market Research Institute at the Lithuanian Centre for Social Research, made a presentation, highlighting the main obstacles to strengthening the capacity of workers' organizations and specified the ways to strengthen them.

Professor Boguslav Gruževskis enumerated the problems faced by trade unions, such as: a small network of trade unions / workers' organizations;

  •  a low number of collective agreements and lack of collective bargaining;
  •  insufficient preparedness of employees;
  •  lack of specialized institutions (research centres, laboratories assessing working conditions, etc.);
  •  insufficient social dialogue at the EU, national and local (sectoral, regional) level.

The professor also presented the stages of economic development, showing participants that the world economy is growing rapidly, but only a small part of the world's population can enjoy the benefits of economic growth, with inequality growing rapidly.

Cristina Mihes, Chief Specialist of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for Social Dialogue and Labour Law, gave a virtual presentation, introducing the ILO conventions that guarantee trade union activity and the right to collective bargaining.

Barbara Surdykowska, correspondent and lawyer at Eurofound (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions), spoke about Poland's experience in concluding collective agreements and developing social dialogue.

This was followed by a discussion on social dialogue at the branch and regional level, moderated by Jovita Pretzsch, Vice-Chairwoman of ‘Solidarumas‘.

Eglė Radišauskienė, Deputy Minister of Social Security and Labour, shared her insights on the difficulties and lessons learned in concluding the National Collective Agreement and branch collective agreements. She stated that this Government has encouraged social dialogue in the public sector, but there is practically no dialogue going on in private firms.

The discussion of the first branch agreement in the private sector in Lithuania, which was concluded by the Transport Trade Union belonging to the Lithuanian Trade Union Solidarumas and the National Carriers Association Linava, aroused great interest among the participants.

Romas Austinskas, President of the National Carriers Association Linava, noted that currently cooperation between employers and trade unions is becoming increasingly important, with the long-awaited Mobility Package, designed to improve drivers‘ working and safety conditions to ensure that the entire sector operates from a level playing field across the EU, promoting fairness of competition, efficiency and safety, being finalized. He pointed out that some EU countries, using the Mobility Package, are trying to stymie competitors from Lithuania. He assured that the Linava Association intends to extend the collective agreement with the Baltic Transport Trade Union ‘Solidarumas‘. Due to the shortage of drivers throughout Europe it is important for employers to clarify employees‘ needs and expectations to prevent drivers from opting to work for the competitors. 

Gintaras Čiužas, Chairman of the Baltic Transport Trade Union ‘Solidarumas‘, shared his experience gained while working with drivers and employers. He highlighted the role of a bilateral commission of employers and trade unions formed under the collective agreement. The function of the Commission is to help to quickly resolve disputes between employers and employees, without resorting to labour dispute commissions.

Tadeusz Kucharsky, Chairman of the Polish Trade Union Solidarnošč, spoke about the difficulties trade unions face in defending drivers' rights to decent working and pay conditions. He denied the credibility of a number of claims by transport company employers aimed at covering up the attempt not to improve the working and pay conditions for workers.

During the discussions it became apparent that the working conditions of Lithuanian truck drivers are better than those in Poland, because in Lithuania employers are obliged to pay their drivers remuneration, which is 65% higher than the minimum wage, whereas in Poland drivers are paid the minimum wage, and the other part of their income consists of daily allowances. By and large, it means that Lithuanian drivers' pensions and social benefits will be higher than those in Poland.

In the afternoon, a discussion on employee mobility took place, moderated by Ričardas Garuolis, Secretary General of the Lithuanian Trade Union ‘Solidarumas‘.

According to him, statistics shows that during the thirty years of Lithuania's independence, the country has lost 1.3 million people: due to lower birth rates and due to emigration. Lithuania is a strong leader in the world in terms of population decline and is on par with countries where wars and famine are raging.

Slawomir Adamczyk, a member of the Collective Bargaining Committee at the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), spoke about the measures undertaken by trade unions across the EU to ensure fair pay and a dignified life for workers as well as prevent social dumping that undermines EU unity.

Egils Baldzens, Chairman of the Latvian Free Trade Union Confederation LBAS, shared his insights about Latvia's experience in protecting workers' rights during the pandemic.

The discussion revealed that the measures taken by the Latvian government to mitigate the crisis caused by the pandemic were much more efficient than those introduced in Lithuania.

Great interest was shown among the participants to the Latvian construction industry's collective agreement, which set a minimum wage for builders that is well above the national minimum wage in exchange for a reduced payment for overtime work – from two to one and a half times, respectively.

In Latvia, the number of employees/workers from third countries, that is, non-EU member states, is incomparably smaller than that in Lithuania, therefore social dumping in Latvia is not yet as big a problem for local workers as in Lithuania.

The next item on the conference agenda was a discussion on new forms of employment and social guarantees for employees, moderated by Jelena Jurėnienė, a member of the board of ‘Solidarumas‘.

Liutauras Vičkačka, Adviser to the Minister of Social Security and Labour, made a presentation on social guarantees for workers and the European Pillar of Social Rights.

Daiva Kvedaraitė, member of the European Economic and Social Committee, spoke about the common unemployment standards in the EU member states. She pointed out that Lithuania is in the embarrassing last place, at the very bottom amidst the European Union member states in terms of the number of concluded collective agreements.

Inga Baltanosienė, Director of the Lithuanian Public Employment Service, delivered a presentation about “Teleworking as the best form of work under COVID-19 quarantine conditions”, in which she discussed the advantages and challenges of switching to teleworking.

Ričardas Garuolis, Chairman of the Guides' Trade Union ‘Solidarumas‘, presented the problems of employees working with individual activity under business certificates and possible solutions to overcome them.

The following day started with a discussion on the ways to attract new members to trade unions, moderated by Rimtautas Ramanauskas, Deputy Chairman of ‘Solidarumas‘.

Edgars Marcinkus, Chairman of the Trade Union “League of Supermarket Employees“, explained how he managed to bring together the trade centre workers, who are among the most vulnerable workers, via Facebook. He revealed that the union's Facebook account already has more than 10.000 followers, conducts regular employee surveys on working and pay conditions, and provides information on union benefits to employees.

Laszlo Laszloczki, representative of the Hungarian National Workers' Confederation MOSZ, shared his insights about Hungary's experience in strengthening employee representation. He noted that technological innovation is changing not only the nature of work, but also the attitudes of workers/employees, in particular young people, towards work and trade unions. It is therefore necessary to use new ways of involving workers amd employees, especially young people, in trade union activities.

Kristina Krupavičienė, Chairwoman of ‘Solidarumas‘, voiced her opinion on the social dialogue under the conditions of COVID-19 lockdown. She explained that under the conditions of the pandemic, thanks to the trade unions, the Government adopted many amendments to the laws that benefited the workers by mitigating the consequences of the crisis caused by the pandemic for the workers and at the same time for the economy as a whole.

Vitalius Jarmontovičius, a lawyer of ‘Solidarumas‘, introduced to the conference participants the amendments to the Labour Code, which came into force on 1 August of this year and answered the questions raised by the conference participants.

Closing the conference, Tadeusz Kucharski from Poland called on union members to work and fight to make the world a better place for our children to live in.