We’ve been hearing a lot in the recent years the word ‘flexibility’ in any discussion about labour market reform. We’re told that a flexible labour market is a means to return to economic growth. In contrast, current labour market regulations create ‘rigidities’ that are the source of all things evil.
In Eastern Europe, this type of arguments dominated the public discourse during the recent crisis – the result being that probably the most radical labour market reforms have been passed in the in the last years. Particularly interesting is the case of Romania, a country where unions were believed to be relatively powerful actors by regional standards.
The labour market reforms passed in Romania in 2011 are archetypal of what flexibility means in practice: less rights for workers. As a recent ILO report published last year points out, the legislation passed in Romania in 2011 without s Parliamentary consultation, amounted to an unprecedented attack both on individual and collective workers’ rights. At the individual level the new legislation extended ‘probationary periods’ so that employers can fire workers at will, gave the right to employers to reduce working hours in certain economic circumstances, relaxed collective dismissal requirements and increased the maximum period for fixed term contracts. At the collective level, the law made it difficult for unions to achieve representative status so they can sign collective agreements, introduced new minimum membership thresholds for forming trade unions, banned cross-sectoral collective agreements and limited the legal effects of sectoral level agreements.
The estimated impact of these measures is massive: 1.2 million employees were excluded from collective bargaining, precarious work has increased significantly and the minimum wage is lagging far behind the levels agreed in 2008. In addition, there has been a rise in anti-union positions amongst employers. Recent events from the Romanian retail sector show how employers in multinationals use the new regulations in order to ban employees from forming or joining unions. An illustrative case is that of the Auchan chain of hypermarkets where the employer refuses to recognize the union that is representing workers in a chain of supermarkets which Auchan bought last year. Moreover, the employer is banning the union from recruiting more of its employees in order to stop it from acquiring representative status at the company level. In response, the local union began protests in supermarkets and sought the help of the UniGlobalUnion but these actions had until today no impact.
Thus, at least in the case of Romania, flexibility was a disguise for dismantling workers’ rights. The crisis was used as a pretext to bypass Parliamentary debates – a procedure that resembles authoritarian decision-making patterns. Despite the fact that a new government came to power since the passing of these changes, there has been no real debate on labour legislation, which makes me believe that the mantra of flexibility is here to stay.
The question is: what are the union confederations doing about this? What have they done to remedy the situation? The short answer is: not much. Following a series of protests that took place in 2011 the national union confederations seem to now tacitly support the current status. This may be be a symptom of a structural problem that the union movement in Romania is facing nowadays that is the organizational weakness and the lack of legitimacy of national union confederations. But if this is the case, will the shop-floor presence be sufficient for keeping unions alive?