Social dialogue

Strengthening workers’ voices – ILO trains trade union leaders and lawyers

Trade unions across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) experience that the rights of workers are under threat and have voiced concerns over attempts to undermine organized labour. Although the region has an impressive track record of ratifications of ILO Core Conventions, the concerns over the lack of implementation of laws and lack of access to workers’ rights remain. ILO ACTRAV organized a seminar for trade union leaders and lawyers from CEE on the use of International Labour Standards and the ILO supervisory machinery in addressing deficiencies of workers’ rights on 26-28 November, 2018 in Budapest, Hungary.

News | 19 February 2019
We interviewed some of the participants to find out about their experience as trade union leaders, the problems with regard to workers’s organizations in their countries and their collaboration with the ILO.

Roman Kravchyk, Deputy Head of International Department, Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Roman Kravchyk, I am Deputy Head of the International Department at the Federation of Trade Unions (TUs) of Ukraine. Our organization has almost 5 million members, which makes us the largest trade union confederation in the country. I am in charge of relations with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and other European and international TU partners. We are also a partner of the ILO.

What are the most important challenges workers need to deal with in Ukraine at the moment?

I have to say low wages are the biggest problem for anyone employed or seeking employment. Ukrainian wages are the lowest in Europe, the average is gross 330 EUR/month. We also have the lowest minimum wage in Europe (130 EUR/month). This amount is lower than the living minimum. It is impossible to live on these remunerations, pay for a house, services or support a family. Pensions are also critically low.  Another concern is the lack of decent jobs, where workers’ rights are respected, including functional collective bargaining rights or measuring up to Occupational Health and Safety standards. All these deficiencies led to mass labour migration, draining the country 20% of its best workforce.  People choose to work in Poland, Czech Republic, Russia, Italy, Portugal, Greece or Denmark where living and working conditions are more favourable.  Consequently, companies are struggling with a severe lack of specialists and skilled workers, i.e. high qualified manual workers, and there is a mismatch of qualifications on the labour market. We consider migration as a threat not only for national security and the local economy, but also for trade unions. We are losing our members.

What are the concerns for trade unions under these circumstances and how do you react to them?

Besides migration, privatization and the extensive restructuring of companies in different sectors also led to losses in TU membership. 0.5 million members are lost every year.  We are fighting for higher wages and minimum labour standards, and submitted proposals concerning the state budget. We also organized a big demonstration on 17 October, 2018 in Kyiv to mainstream the cause and show the mass support behind these proposals. Unfortunately, our proposals were not taken into account.  

Concerning Trade union’s and workers’ rights we recently established a registry of rights violations with information about the cases that we become aware of. The information comes in from our member organizations, and we try to react using international support. ITUC and the ILO, through its supervisory mechanisms, assist us in addressing them. A recent complaint we submitted to the ILO referred to the violation of the right for association.  Trade Union leaders are sometimes banned from accessing the workplace, or workers receive messages from managers instructing them to stop paying TU memberships fees.  There have been some draft laws to restrict TU memberships, recently for students and former firefighters now reformed into the Civil Protection Service. We are also facing the situation when trade union offices, built and maintained from TU membership fees, are captured by the state and given away to different state agencies like courts and prosecutor offices. We started a legal procedure in Ukraine and even have a positive decision from the European Court of Human Rights, confirming these cases imply violation of property rights.

We are also concerned about strike legislation, which is a complicated procedure. So much so that it seems impossible to organize a completely legal strike. There is an excessive preliminary notice period and national strikes are not allowed. We prepared a draft law to remedy the situation for Parliament, but it is frozen, unfortunately.

Ukraine needs an economic breakthrough to catch up with the European countries but the current conditions do not yield sustainable growth prospects. Moreover, the armed conflict with Russia-backed forces on the east and annexation of the Crimea have an impact both on the economy and human rights situation, including workers’ rights. Before the conflict, Russia was an important trade partner and many people went to work there.

How does the ILO assist workers’ organizations in Ukraine?

We contributed to the elaboration of the Decent Work Country Programme 2016-19 as a partner of the ILO throughout the consultations. The ongoing ILO projects strengthen Labour inspection and the employment services. A new project will bolster workers’ organizations, which is very much needed. We are discussing priorities for this new project for the next years.  This training was useful, I understand the ILO machinery much better now, how it works and how we can use it optimally for the benefits of the workers in Ukraine. We are planning to have a similar training in Ukraine, bringing together TU lawyers at the beginning of February.

Vit Samek, Vice-president of the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions

Please introduce yourself.

My name is JUDr. Vít Samek, I am Vice-president of the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions, responsible for labour protection and social issues, and also Chair of its Legislative Council. I am a pension expert, member of the Government Pension Reform expert group. Since 2001 I have been representative of the Czech Trade Unions at the International Labour Conferences in Geneva.

The Czech Republic has been very successful in making its transition to a market economy, with a strong economic performance until today.  What are the challenges for workers?

The Czech labour market is in a very strong position at the moment, the level of unemployment is low, the lowest in Europe. Nevertheless, our workers do face challenges and are exposed to risks. First of all, there is a risk of undeclared work and disguised employment.  Misusing the status of self-employment to avoid paying fair wages and obligatory social contributions is quite common.

What are the challenges Workers’ organizations are dealing with?

In our country, there are Employers´ organizations with no real will to bargain collectively and sign the so-called "higher level collective agreements", which are similar to branch collective agreements. For instance, we have this situation in the automotive industry, which is one of the most important sectors in the country. We managed to overcome the problem with the legal status of Trade Unions and Employers’ organizations, and the new registration regulations of Social Partners’ organizations, arising from the private law reform a few years ago. We have succeeded in a legal battle with state authorities by referring to the Fundamental Conventions of the ILO – finally a new regulation has changed according to our proposals.  We targeted reaching full conformity of the new Czech private law with the ILO Conventions Nr. 87 and 98 ratified by the Czech Republic, concerning legal status and the registration process carried out by the courts.

How have you collaborated with the ILO, and what is your experience working with the organization?

We have a very good example of ILO assistance provided to the Czech Trade unions. This is the Czech case of breaching non-conformity of the Czech legislation and practice with the ILO Convention 111. related to employment and occupation. The Czech breach of this Convention was repeatedly discussed in the Committee of Experts, and also at the International Labour Conference.

The Czech Government was requested to clarify its position concerning three allegations in the complaint of the Trade Unions and the case has solved the following issues.  1) Discrimination of disadvantaged members of the Roma community in the labour market. Now there is continuous support provided to the Roma community particularly in the area of employment and skills development. This is important as the discrepancy between the requirements of employers and the qualification level reported for disadvantaged Roma represents one of the main reasons of unemployment among the Roma population in the Czech Republic. 2) The unsatisfactory anti-discrimination legislation and the implementation of Convention No. 111.  3) The application of the law that has reformed the public sector (1991, 2014, 2018) and how this law clarifies the types of employment positions that are still subject to the Screening Act.

Another good example is assistance given by the ILO technical mission when officials visited the Czech Republic a few years ago and helped us to solve the legal problem with the incorrect enumeration of discrimination grounds in the former Czech legislation, when TU activities and TU membership were missing.

How did you benefit from the training?

This training helped me to get further clarity on the ILO system of Labour Standards and the Supervisory Machinery, including activities and decisions of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, the Committee on the Application of Standards and the Committee on Freedom of Association. We are in the middle of preparing the Czech national ILO Centenary Conference on the Future of Work in April 2019 in Prague. I will make sure the conference agenda will reflect some of the issues we discussed at the training.

Arjola Alika, Legal Expert, Union of Independent Trade Unions of Albania

Please introduce yourself.

I am Arjola Alika, Legal Expert representing the Union of Independent Trade Unions of Albania. I am also President of the Independent Public Trade Union.  

What are the most important challenges for workers in Albania at this time?

The most important problem we have is that the minium wage is very low,  180 EUR per month. Additionally, in the different sectors the implementation of health and safety measures, and the quality of work conditions are often problematic.

What are the issues workers’ organizations are focusing on?

In Albania, social dialogue needs to be scaled up. We are also fighting for minimum wage in the different sectors and for reducing the pay gap between men and women. Women are paid 32% less than men on the average. The Union of Independent Trade Unions of Albania recently conducted a „Stop Gender-based Violence at the Workplace” campaign with the International Trade Union Confederation. Our aim is to abolish the pay gap ultimately and end discrimination. We are trying to raise awareness of occupational safety and health issues so that accidents can be prevented. It is a challenge for trade unions to recruits new members, especially in the private sector or at multinational companies, where workers’ rights are not always respected. The Trade Unions are democratic bodies, women are part of the decision-making process and the women’s movement is growing fast. That said, we would like to see more women among Trade Union leaders.  And not just the leaders. Many women are working for minimum wage, for long hours including weekends and holidays, very much so for instance in the textile industry. Their working conditions need to be improved.  Together with IndustriaALL Global Union , we organized a conference on OSH jointly with the miners’ trade union which has 3.500 members. The mining industry is quite important in Albania. We would like to see more new members joining from this sector.

How have you collaborated with the ILO in the past? How does the organization assists workers’ organizations?

ILO has been instrumental in strengthening the Labour Code in Albania. We have a Decent Work Country Programme 2017-21--the Trade Unions of Albania, as well as Employers organizations contributed to the strategy. Our priorities are employment promotion and creating enabling environments for sustainable enterprises. The ILO regularly trains our experts and assists with its expertise on different areas, such as social dialogue, legal issues or women’s issues.