Brussels, 20 November 2008: Although Europe remains a model on social policy, the European section of the Annual Survey on Violations of Trade Union Rights, published today by the ITUC, shows that developments in 2007 mean that trade union rights are by no means guaranteed there. That was the case in both the traditional strongholds of trade unionism in the West and the transitional economies in Eastern Europe.
In Georgia, a country hit by war in recent months, the new Labour Code introduced in 2007 allows workers to be dismissed for no valid reason. The adoption of that code led to the Georgian Trade Union Confederation losing an estimated 20,000 members who were dismissed or forced to resign by anti-union employers. Although the Labour Code was contested, the court ruled that the right of employers to sack any worker was unconditional.
The ITUC Annual Survey stresses that the right to strike was undermined in many Member States of the European Union. Two decisions of the European Court of Justice in the Laval and Viking cases showed very clearly that the interpretation of the law rarely favours the protection of trade union and workers’ rights where commercial and workers’ interests are in conflict. In France, the “country of human rights”, the government of Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a law that severely restricts the right to strike in public transport. The trend was similar in Belgium, where a group of individuals started a court action to claim damages from workers who participated in a strike. Moreover, the general bans on striking in the civil service in many countries such as Estonia and Bulgaria remained in force despite strong criticism from the International Labour Organisation and the Council of Europe.
The Lukashenko regime, well-practised in violations of democratic freedoms, is now paying for its actions. Following its continued lack of respect of trade union rights, the European Union decided to withdraw Belarus’ trade preferences under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), causing the loss of some 400 million Euros in exports revenues. Whilst some positive developments were reported following this decision, the anti-union legislation remains strong and trade union activities are controlled by the government. It is not unusual for the head office of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions to be raided by the police. According to the ITUC Survey, the anti-democratic practices of Belarus have been emulated by neighbouring countries. The Russian Federation saw interference by state agencies in trade union affairs, particularly when a strike was being organised. In Kyrgyzstan, state officials tried to interfere in trade union elections.
Anti-union trends strengthened in many European countries. This particularly applied to the United Kingdom, where a study by the TUC and Personnel Today showed that trade union activities can seriously damage career prospects. Blacklisting, dismissals, demotions, psychological pressure and anti-union campaigns were reported across the continent, particularly in Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria, where physical threats were reported.
The behaviour of Western multinationals has also left much to be desired. They quite often display anti-union attitudes in Eastern Europe, and a subsidiary of Reemtsma in Kyrgyzstan was a notable example. More hopeful signs came from Hungary, however, where good industrial relations have become virtually a precondition for winning public tenders. The Hankook Tyre company learnt this to its cost when the subsidies it receives from the state were cut as a result of anti-union practices.
“When trade union rights are undermined a domino effect is produced”, warned Guy Ryder, the ITUC General Secretary. “As a result, other fundamental rights are threatened”. In Georgia, trade unionists were arbitrarily dismissed after protesting against discrimination, whilst in Albania, the same thing happened to union activists who had publicised the use of child labour. ”In addition, the tendency of many employers and governments in Central and Eastern Europe to thwart the growth of free trade unions has become an increasing trend in Western Europe too”, added Guy Ryder.
Migrant workers are subjected to a lot of discrimination in Europe. Several Central and East European countries have filled the labour shortages left by skilled and unskilled workers emigrating in search of better wages with imported labour from countries with even lower wages, including China, Ukraine and Belarus. Often victims of human trafficking these workers are harshly exploited and deprived of their union rights. Spain did, however, send out some positive signals when the Constitutional Court ruled that undocumented migrant workers had the right to organise, just like all other workers.
A modern trend in Europe is to build up legal or practical barriers to organising so-called “atypical” workers, whose ranks are growing fast. In Poland, self-employed workers cannot join a union whilst in Rumania they risk losing their job if they join a union. In Spain, Croatia and Belarus, it is common to recruit workers on short-term contracts so as bypass their organising and collective bargaining rights. And in Russia, a union leader lost his job in a Coca-Cola factory when temporary agency workers joined his union.
The ITUC represents 168 million workers in 155 countries and territories and has 311 national affiliates.
For more information, please contact the ITUC Press Department on: +32 2 224 0204 or +32 476 621 018.