Tuesday

18th Jun 2019

Opinion

Lenders seek to undermine Greek workers' rights

  • Workers' rights are being threatened in Greece. (Photo: Chris Goldberg/Flickr)

In the current negotiations over a new loan package for Greece, collective bargaining and workers’ rights have been put under the spotlight.

Both the European Commission and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have made it clear that the reforms in recent years should not be undone.

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  • Many decisions by the IMF have been seen as problematic in Greece. (Photo: Denis Bocquet)

The IMF in particular is calling for further reforms that would reduce trade union and workers’ rights.

A report was published last September by an expert group on labour market institutions, which was set up by the lending institutions (European Commission, European Central Bank, European Stability Mechanism, International Monetary Fund) and the Greek government.

The report is being directly ignored or misinterpreted, while the Commission and IMF claim they are merely calling for changes in order to bring Greece in line with international best practices.

Greek workers and their unions should be the judge of that, but are not being allowed a say on the matter.

Strike action

The IMF is explicit in calling for changes to strike rules.

In its latest country report on Greece, it argues that the legislation on industrial action has not been altered since the 1980s and that this “could explain the large number of strikes in Greece, which even prior to the crisis far exceeded levels seen elsewhere.”

The report also goes on to state that the ban on lockouts should be lifted.

It is not self-evident that the lack of reforms since the 1980s should justify changes today and the IMF’s statistics do not support this argument.

The data is on general strikes and not on industrial action in the context of disputes in the workplace or at sectoral level. There are no statistics on strike action in Greece at these levels.

Furthermore, the figures for Greece in the chart on page 30 are for one year only, 2002, and do not represent an average for the period of 2002 to 2007. This is misleading and sloppy work.

The IMF position also flies in the face of the first two recommendations from the previously mentioned expert group.

The first recommendation is that there is no need for changes to strike rules and the second sees no need to end the ban on lock-outs. It notes particularly that: “The provisions on industrial conflict in Greece have established a balance of power between employers and unions; its rules are accepted by both sides.”

Collective bargaining

The key issues in the reforms demanded by the IMF and the Eurogroup in regard to bargaining are the extension and hierarchy of collective agreements.

Extension concerns the extent to which sector collective agreements are applicable to all workers in the sector.

The hierarchy refers to whether locally negotiated collective agreements can include provisions that are worse than those specified in the sector agreement.

Earlier reforms implemented at the behest of international creditors have suspended extensions and turned the normal collective agreement hierarchy on its head. Further changes have allowed non-trade union “associations” to sign agreements with employers.

It is not clear what best practices the IMF and European Commission are following to justify favouring local collective agreements over sector-level agreements.

In our opinion, the best practice would be for the unions, employers and governments to judge the situation. It is not a matter for the European Commission or the IMF to decide on behalf of workers.

Speaking recently at the European Parliament, commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said: “The suspension of the legal extensions of sectoral agreements and the favourability principle does not mean that collective bargaining has disappeared from Greece.”

In a strict sense he is right, but collective bargaining has been significantly weakened, nevertheless. It is now being carried out under the favourability rule, which is the exact opposite of best international practices.

The majority in the expert group clearly indicated that Greece experienced “fragmentation and destabilisation of the system of collective bargaining and an increase of inequality and poverty.” Furthermore, they also showed concern that “the erosion of collective bargaining with all its negative consequences on wages will continue if the regulatory framework remains as it is.”

The group went on to set out a clear position in support of sector bargaining and general applicability of agreements with 10 cogent reasons for the economic and social benefits of this kind of system. These ranged from creating a level playing field for companies to fairer pay and social protection for vulnerable workers.

Why is the IMF ignoring this?

Jan Willem Goudriaan is the General Secretary of the European Public Service Union (EPSU)

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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