Supporting the European perspective of the Western Balkans – for strengthening social dialogue and negotiation capacity in the EU accession process

From 3 to 5 November 2021 took place an online seminar about “Supporting the European perspective of the Western Balkans – for strengthening social dialogue and negotiation capacity in the EU accession process”, organized by Podkrepa, with the support of EZA and of the European Union. The seminar was organized in the framework of the EZA special project for workers’ organizations in the Western Balkans.

56 representatives of workers’ organisations from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Poland, Serbia, Republic of North Macedonia and Albania participated in the seminar.

The objectives of the seminar were:

  1. To explore to what extend social dialogue, collective bargaining, workers’ participation and the respect of occupational safety and health standards can play an essential role both: in the response to the COVID-19 crisis and in support of an accelerated EU integration process.
  2. To contribute to the improvement of negotiation and communication’s capacity of national social partners with regard to provide for a more active involvement in national policies for EU integration.
  3. To support more adequate and fast adaptation of trade union policies to the constantly changing trends in employment.
  4. To exchange on the involvement of workers organizations to defend workers’ rights and income during and after the pandemic.
  5. To analyze the implemented measures and the respective trade unions’ actions, related to the post pandemic recovery plans, including the green agenda and the new forms of work.

The seminar program was planned as balanced mix between academic interventions and presentations by trade union experts around the following key issues:

  • The EU commitment to the enlargement process and the persisting socio-economic problems, poverty and lack of reforms in the region of Western Balkans.
  • The already implemented governmental responses to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and the actions of trade union to prevent the drop down of employment and living standards in WBs.
  • The possibility for EU support and the involvement of workers’ organizations in the national policies for green, sustainable and just post pandemic recovery.
  • The post pandemic recovery from a gender perspective and the connection between that recovery and the future of jobs, skills and the green economy.

In addition, with regard to complement the academic inputs and the expressed trade unions positions, the program included:

1. Think-thank session: Develop responses to the COVID-19 crisis to exchange on trade unions involvement in the implementation of the national recovery plans.

2. Round table: Dialogue for our future – working together, showing solidarity!

3. Brainstorming session: Many challenges – real solutions with discussion on innovative approaches to increase the effectiveness social partnership and to improve trade unions’ communication & awareness raising strategies.

4. Plenary discussions, questions & answers session.

5. Conclusive remarks and summary

Key ideas

  1. COVID-19 crisis has severe impact on the Western Balkans region, destroyed jobs, slashed incomes, intensified and deepened inequalities and poverty. Nothing is worse, than poverty - social divides in WBs are so deep that they are threaten the cohesion of the local communities/societies. Practically, there are many good intentions to deal with that problem, but there are not enough actions to make these intentions a reality. Common effort to reduce poverty and towards a sustainable, with strong employment component recovery are the key to guarantee decent life to people in the region. To make positive difference for everyone, the recovery should genuinely involve all social actors to advance structural reforms and to fight corruption in the region. Those reforms will not succeed without strengthening their social and economic component through mutual co-operation with social partners as equal actors in the process. In addition - building and further develop institutionalized and functional social dialogue are the others crucial elements not only for the recovery, but also to provide the foundation of the modern, democratic and European society, so expected from citizens in Western Balkans.
  2. Nowadays, the EU perspective of the region seems quite distant, real advancement, if it exists, is not tangible for the population in the region. The EU rhetoric is very convenient for politicians, but ordinary people are feeling absence of adequate understanding from the EU institutions on what actually is the reality in their countries. In addition, the absence of accountability and transparency of the accession process is weakened the relations between citizens and their societies. It is time for EU institutions to rethink and re-shape the philosophy of the already applied for about 30 years political criteria and recommendations, related to accession process with regard to align them with the real situation and the specific habits & characteristics of the region.
  3. Region-wide effort are also required to promote green growth. This could be done by promoting green industries and technologies, supporting green jobs which are offering significant opportunities for the Western Balkans – including closer integration into the global value chains and access to significant EU resources. Social partners must play an important role in the transition to a greener and more sustainable society. Their role in shaping and implementing measures to promote a smart and intelligent, circular and low-carbon economy based on a fair approach is vital.
  4. During the pandemic, teleworking has contributed employment to be maintained and losses to be limited. Many lessons can be learned by trade unions, legislative amendment and collective negotiations are needed to regulate important labour issues in more detail, such as: the organization of the workplace in the home in way to meet the requirements for health and safety; the provision of office equipment (outside the technical devices), such as a work desk, office chair, appropriate lighting; how should be considered an accident at work when working remotely, etc. or how it will be proved?
  5. EU integration must hold out a real prospect for young people in the region. Young people form WBs have suffered most in social and economic terms from the Covid-19 crisis, and now they want to be well trained, find good jobs, start families and fulfil themselves through work that matches their skills and interests. All education and employment policies for young people in the region including all trade unions initiatives, must take this as a starting point.
  6. There is time to find sustainable solutions, to facilitate dialogue for more integration within the region. The region needs cooperation and reconciliation. Therefore, it is vital that all six countries in the Western Balkans move forward quickly to develop the common regional labour market. That is key for the success of the EU Economic and Investment Plan for the region and it is key for progress on the EU accession path.

Conclusions and recommendations

-The prospect of future membership in the EU is a powerful stimulus for political and economic reforms in the region. Now, WB countries need to transform their response to the coronavirus into an opportunity for a stronger partnership with the EU. In fact, bringing together the prosperous regions of the EU and the problems of the Western Balkans is not impossible, but it will certainly not be easy.

-Fulfilling the criteria will take time and big efforts -first - constructive social dialogue and inclusion of social partners at all levels of the integration process is very important as one of the criteria for an efficient integration process. Second, the creation of new and the preservation of existing quality jobs are crucial. In addition, it’s important to prevent the misuse of funds, as well as attempts to unilaterally change labour legislation to the detriment of workers, and further violation and derogation of acquired labour and social rights and standards.

-Trade union movement in WBs is currently at a crossroads. It faces declining memberships, challenges in securing trade union rights, to tackle the technological and economic changes which are affecting the nature and type of jobs. To reverse the decline in membership trade unions, need to develop new strategies and tactics, to become stronger and more dynamic. First - an open and frank discussion on what the core priorities and positions are, acknowledging that trade union members don’t always share a common opinion. Second – several fundamental questions need to be addressed - starting with a strategic reflection on the core trade union work, not limiting to policies around working conditions and other labour market issues, extending them to cover challenges to democracy and the rule of law.

-Very important is to consider the organising activity of trade unions as a process of continuous learning. All trade union organising strategies and campaigns must be subject to rigorous review. What works and what doesn’t work, should be clearly identified, so that strategies and campaigns can be improved and lessons learnt. Trade unions must become more agile and learn to change to meet new challenges, their strategic decisions need to be based on sound intelligence.

-Trade unions from the region need to be more united, they need to be able to reach consensus, to present common demands and to implement common campaigns - only united they will have an effective strength, together with a greatest potential to ensure that EU integration is achieved without compromising the goals of decent employment and social justice.

-Trade unions from the region must „go local“: to communicate more effectively between themselves and with the society, to better coordinate and present workers ’ needs, demands and problems. To do that trade unions have to start negotiating new style “local” collective agreements adapted to the region’s philosophy of employee involvement. Such agreements may for example cover workers in the subsidiaries of the multinational companies, operating in the region or in one concrete branch.

-Post Covid world will be different – now the most important is to promote trade unions core values – solidarity, support, understanding - material prosperity is important, especially to those who do not have the means to live a decent life, but people have a broader conception of values that can only be realized by working together for the betterment of their community or region.