Press release: Europe: workers affected by austerity measures

Many European governments imposed austerity measures in 2010 to combat the large public deficits that resulted from the global economic and financial crisis, with adverse consequences for many workers. This is in substance the conclusion of the European section of the 2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights in the world published today by the International Trade Union Confederation.

A few years previously, Europe was the model to follow in social matters, and is now struggling to recover from the effects of the global economic and financial crisis. Wage cuts, pension reforms, and budget curtailments spurred massive protests across the region, with general strikes in Spain, Greece, Portugal and France. The harsh economic climate has also made some workers wary of reporting trade union rights’ violations as they fear losing their jobs. Union organising all over Europe has also been hampered by the increased use of precarious work. In Belarus, 90% of all workers are employed on short-term contracts.

In Ukraine and Russia, the situation remains delicate: employers attempt to limit their employees’ rights by trying to modify the Labour Code and the judicial authorities infringe and put pressure on trade unions. Although the law guarantees the right to register a trade union, it is not unusual to encounter difficulties doing so. The ITUC Survey highlights the obstacles to legitimate trade union organising in newly independent States where trade union representation has undergone major transformations over the last decade.

Georgia is rapidly becoming the black sheep of workers’ rights in Europe. The workers are being pressed to work in unhealthy and dangerous environments, trade union activists are being dismissed, and trade union leaders are being harassed and threatened. The whole existence of independent trade union organisations is put at risk.

Turkey is the scene of numerous violations of trade union rights. In 2010 alone, approximately 350 trade unionists were dismissed because of their union activities. An ILO mandated mission visited Ankara in March to assist the country to take meaningful steps towards adequately protecting trade union rights, but the mission was not received by the Minister of Labour.

The ITUC Survey once again highlights the anti-trade union nature of the political regime in Belarus. The situation for trade union rights has further deteriorated. President Lukashenko was elected to a fourth term in December, sparking protests where hundreds of protesters were arrested, including ten union activists.
In Turkey and Serbia, trade union leaders were subjected to physical and psychological abuse. In Moldova, union leaders who demanded unpaid wages were arrested, charged with criminal offences and detained. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the public authorities deregistered a local union following a strike over unpaid wages and the dismissal of trade union leaders.
It is not unusual for trade unions to be forced to leave their trade union and to join the “yellow” trade unions which are favourable to employers. Remedies for dismissed workers are problematic, legal cases can take up to two years and reinstatements are rare, particularly in Estonia, Lithuania and Albania.

All across Europe, social dialogue has been significantly weakened which makes trade union action very complicated. The right to strike, the last resort, an essential and recognised right is often impeded, particularly in essential services where strikes are forbidden. In the United Kingdom, the procedures to hold a strike are so restrictive that employers can halt a strike. In many European countries, civil servants’ rights are significantly violated.

“Europe must become the social model that it once was. The economic and financial crisis should not be used as a pretext to undermine trade union rights” said Sharan Burrow, the ITUC General Secretary.

Read the complete survey