Efficient organization – in search of new solutions for the development of social dialogue in the age of pandemic

An international seminar about “Efficient organization – in search of new solutions for the development of social dialogue in the age of pandemic” was held in Gdansk from 17 to 18 June 2021, organized by KK NSZZ "Solidarność" (Komisja Krajowa NSZZ "Solidarność"), with the support of EZA and of the European Union. The meeting was organized in hybrid form and gathered 56 representatives of workers’ organisations both on site and online. The working languages were English, Spanish, German and Polish.

The meeting was started by Jerzy Jaworski - Deputy Chairman of NSZZ "Solidarność", who stressed the importance of the subject in the face of ubiquitous remote meetings and focus on this kind of meetings, which is not necessarily suitable and conducive to the development of social dialogue. He expressed hope for a quick return to traditional meetings, which lead to faster and better results in the negotiations of social partners. Then moderators of the meeting Magdalena Gryciuk and Mateusz Szymański, experts of NSZZ "Solidarność", welcomed participants, presented the topic and agenda of the meeting.

The first presentation was given by Irina Semjonova, LBAS expert, presenting solutions related to remote work in Latvia. Only those employees whose tasks cannot be performed remotely are allowed to work in the offices. If the employee and the employer has not agreed together to work remotely, the employer has the right to order remote work. The employer provides the equipment necessary for the performance of official duties, and if the employee indicates objective circumstances that prevent him from working remotely, the employer must consider allowing the employee to work stationary, ensuring appropriate sanitary measures. An employee performing remote work cooperates with the employer in the scope of risk assessment in the work environment and provides the employer information about the conditions in his remote workplace that may affect safety and health during work. Trade unions, in cooperation with the Confederation of Employers, have established a number of rules regulating remote work, such as support for job protection in remote work or online seminars for employers with information on remote work. The state has introduced downtime support for enterprises, and minimum wage levels for employees, depending on the size of the company and the number of dependent children.

The second presentation was given by David Hafner, ÖGB expert, presenting the institutional and legal solutions to deal with the pandemic and the participation of social partners in this process in Austria, which was hit hard economically, in particular due to the decline in tourism turnover and the long lockdown. However, a minimum wage part-time work agreement and a General Collective Agreement on Protective Measures, which is the first general agreement since 1978, have been developed. Especially the first solution protected hundreds of thousands of employees against unemployment.

Another presentation on the same subject from the perspectives of Italy gave Roberto Pedersini from the University of Milan. The fast and long lockdown resulted in a very large decline in GDP (-8.9%) and an increase in unemployment, in particular among young people (up to 33.7%), as well as a decline in employment. Remote work was very widely used and covered more than 6 million workers in the supreme moment. National Recovery and Resilience Plan is very difficult to implement and the most important elements are: increased productivity, social inclusion, as well as green and digital transformation, where the role of social partners is very important.

Another presentation from Spain was given by Nerea Cabrera Munoz, USO expert. Even before the pandemic, unemployment was high and the pandemic only worsened the situation. However, the state took a number of actions, i.e. investments in the public health sector, support for companies and employees from the tourism sector, assistance for low-income families to provide food for children. Temporary employment regulations have also been introduced as a result of force majeure or for economic, technical, organizational or production reasons. They concerned: discounts for companies in the field of social security contributions, depending on the number of employees, as well as the minimum wage depending on the number of children. If the companies took advantage of this type of aid, they could not lay off their employees for 6 months, thus saving approx. 3 million jobs. Trade unions focused on informing members about current legal changes. In the opinion of the speaker, the actions taken were not 100% successful, but saved millions of jobs. Then speakers answered questions from participants.

Jakub Szmit, NSZZ "Solidarność" expert, presented the chronology of records and acts called "anti-crisis shields", which today is already nine. They introduced mechanisms aimed at mitigating the effects of the pandemic in the economic sphere, and therefore also on the labor market. The funds from the shield were directed mainly to employers in order to protect jobs, which turned out to be effective as the unemployment rate did not increase significantly. Most funds were allocated to small and micro entrepreneurs and the self-employed. On the other hand, instruments of economic downtime and working time reduction were introduced. The principle of applying less favorable solutions than contractual or co-financing part of the employee's remuneration was also introduced. By the Law Act from March 2, 2020, remote work was introduced, which operates on the basis of the employer's unilateral decision (business order). It has gained great popularity and has proven itself in Poland, by which works are carried out in order to introduce this solution to a Labour Code permanently. When it came to express opinions on these legal acts, social partners had very little time for consultations. 

Isabelle Schömann, ETUC Secretary, presented the ETUC action in the field of monitoring and gathering solutions to the trade union movement aiming to exchange of good practices and help trade unions from different countries. She pointed out that legal solutions introduced quickly during a pandemic without appropriate public consultations may only function temporarily and it cannot be agreed that they should remain permanent. Another issue concerning the protection of private data in connection with the prevalence of artificial intelligence and remote work, which requires an agreement between social partners. Another issue raised was online working time and right to disconnect. There are also psychosocial risks such as stress and burnout caused by high social isolation and problems with access to technical equipment and space to work. The work-life balance is also in jeopardy in this situation. Answering questions from the hall, she emphasized that the ETUC was opting not to pursue a policy of savings because only public investments can stimulate the economies and labor markets of the Member States, taking into account the green and digital transformation, which should take place in a fair manner, i.e. with the protection of workers' rights.

Katarzyna Jażdżewska from NSZZ “Solidarność” presented on IT tools that trade unions can use for work and communication. She presented the most popular communication platforms as well as their functionalities and technical requirements, i.e. Zoom, Interactio, Interprefy, Kudo, Vioceboxer, MS Teams, Skype, Discord and others. Then the moderators summed up the 1st day of the seminar and ended the meeting.  

Mateusz Szymański, expert of the National Commission of NSZZ "Solidarność", stressing that the second day would be devoted to practical solutions. First panel consisting in the exchange of good practices in the field of remote work concerned the banking, education and public services sectors, whose representatives answered the question whether remote work is a challenge or an opportunity. In the case of the tax administration, according to Emilia Hańczuk, remote work was not easy and was not often used. The main problem of remote work was combining professional and private life and administrative costs incurred by employees. On the other hand, working remotely during successive waves of illnesses gave a sense of security.

Representative of a trade union of the educational sector Tomasz Gryczan drew attention to issues such as: access to computer equipment, a stable, high-speed internet, work life balance or working time registration as issues which were the most problematic for this branch. The approach to working remotely has changed over time, from the initial shock of adjusting health and safety to the habit of feeling safe. Ultimately, however, teachers opt for a return to classroom teaching.

Marcin Stroński from the banking sector emphasized that those who have appropriate housing conditions are in favor of remote work, and the others are not necessarily. He drew the desired attention to the protection of personal data, because banks helped buy equipment for remote work, but on a voluntary basis and in small amounts. Remote work was to avoid the situation that all workers would be in quarantine at the same time. According to him, work like before the pandemic will not come back and work will be carried out in a hybrid form. They are talking with employers about compensation for remote work as well as about health and safety and working time.

Imma Badia Camprubi from USO presented the situation of the educational sector in Spain in the context of occupational health and safety. The problem was the lack or insufficient equipment at home for remote work, which caused stress. With time, however, the situation calmed down and thanks to the union's work and the provision of adequate security measures, the schools, with the exception of a short break, remained open all the time. Working time recording and the right to disconnect have been a problem and trade unions are currently working on these issues in Spain.

The issue common to all countries participating in the Seminar are the ongoing negotiations on the permanent regulation of remote work. Opinions on this process and priorities were exchanged by panellists in the further discussion.

The second panel of practitioners from the medical and social care concerned issues such as changing working hours, wage subsidies and effective protection against loss of employment. Urszula Lewandowska representing NSZZ "Solidarność” described the situation in the field of social care industry where work was carried out in the form of telework, which was insufficient for people in need, so the situation was very difficult. In the context of meetings and quick arrangements and negotiations, on-line meetings ensure easy and quick contact, which is positive. The Social Labor Inspector played an important role in the field of occupational health and safety, and legal assistance provided by trade unions gave employees safety in the event of concerns about job cuts.

Next, Joanna Krzos from the hospital in Lębork, Poland described the situation in her workplace, where the first line of fighting against pandemic was accompanied by great fear and uncertainty, which required the implementation of many procedures to protect employees. All panellists emphasized the importance of health and safety issues in the period of the pandemic and remote work.

The last panel of practitioners concerned the hotel industry and Internet trade on mechanisms of protection against job loss, bankruptcy, as well as changes in working time and wage subsidies. Bartosz Kamuda of the hospitality industry of NSZZ "Solidarnosc", drew attention to the different situation of large hotel chains and small family hotels, which often do not interrupt even the provision of services or their permanent costs were at a minimum level. In large hotels, “the anti-crisis shields” were insufficient as there was no variation in hotel size. Instead, there are protection measures for workers at a high level. The Accor Group did not lay off any of its employees, but subcontractors or associates, who constituted 1/3 of the workforce, quit spontaneously. As a result, the remaining employees had to take over the tasks of those who left and worked more than 8 hours per day in order to maintain their workplaces.

Then Andreas Paraskeva from Nielsen EWC said that Cyprus introduced similar measures, but now all the restrictions were lifted, hotels operating normally and there are no restrictions at this moment. The low level of unemployment was maintained and the measures taken by the government proved effective. The schools worked remotely for a very short time. They were provided protective measures, adequate equipment for remote working and facilitating childcare.

Another speaker, Monika Sobiech from Nielsen, stated that her company did not have to use “anti-crisis shields”, provided laptops for remote work and organized it very quickly. However, the employer wanted to limit contributions to the social fund, which the trade union did not agree to and what emphasizes the importance of the presence of a trade union in the company.

Next, Ewa Chełminiak presented the situation in the company that sells on-line (H&M). Despite the lack of direct contact with the client, there was a high risk of infection among employees, in response to which the employer provided protection measures very quickly. In the retail industry, there was no protection at the beginning due to the lack of masks, screens at the checkout, etc. Moreover people did not comply with the obligation to wear masks, and there was also stress and aggression from customers.

The last element was a debate on what can be done to improve using the tool of social dialogue in global crisis situations. After the exchange of opinions and tips, the moderator ended the seminar.