Precarious employment and the role of trade unions in post-socialist Central Europe

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Taxis drivers in Budapest protest against Uber.
By Tibor Meszmann September 29, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left East — Since the outbreak of the global economic crisis in 2008, precarious employment has increasingly become the focus of attention for socially responsive international organizations and critical scholars and activists. Precarious employment has found its place at the centre of employment and social policy debates. Common in the conceptualization of precarious employment is the “lack of decent jobs, security, protection and rights.” A recent ILO report, for example, underlines the most common forms of precarious employment relations, trends and features by noting that: “more than 60 percent of workers worldwide, predominantly women, are in temporary, part-time or short-term jobs in which wages are falling, a growing trend that is fuelling global income inequality and poverty.” Against this predominantly policy oriented, and in terms of collective action perhaps paralyzing background, critical social theorists have again highlighted the importance of incorporating a historical perspective, including the reoccurring Marxian theme of the reserve army of industrial labour and the relationship between the proletariat and the sub proletariat (including its true meaning). Most crucial to the Marxian analysis is that the precariousness of workers is understood as part of the system of development of global capitalist production, which takes up concrete forms in current historical times, with clear signs of intensification. A recent research project entitled “The rise of the dual labour market: fighting precarious employment in the new member states through industrial relations (PRECARIR),” uncovered the role of industrial relations in addressing changing labour markets and, in particular, the growth of precarious work in most, former state socialist and new EU member states (Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia), as well as in Greece. The policy-centered analyses focused on initiatives, responses, and best practices that trade unions and employers’ associations developed in addressing precarious work in the post-2008 period. The national reports used a qualitative and comparative approach to study the dimensions of precarious employment, including low pay, irregular working hours, job security and representation of workers’ rights. The two-dimensional approach to precarious employment allowed for the mapping of sectoral differences in the following sectors: construction, healthcare, metal/automotive, retail, and temporary agency work (TAW). In our analyses, special attention was paid to forces shaping precarious employment (e.g. business cycles, state budgets, lack of skilled labour) but also to historical features of how dual labour markets appeared and developed following state socialist transformation in concrete sectors and industries of emerging capitalist national economies. As authors Marta Kahancova, Aristea Koukiadaki, and Aurora Trif (forthcoming) state in their joint comparative brief, there has been an “increase in the share of atypical work contracts since 2008, and all forms of employment were exposed to more precarious conditions following various degrees of labour market deregulation in the countries studied. In a context of weak labour law enforcement and the decreasing role and influence of unions, employers were able to use (and sometimes abuse) their enlarged prerogatives to increase the workload of employees, expand the use of irregular working time and sometimes, to reduce the income of workers on all types of contracts. Still, workers in the more shady parts of the labour market experience the most precarious working conditions, most evident in the construction and retail sectors, often working for small domestic firms. The share of agency workers, fixed-term, and part-time contracts has risen across the countries studied but less than expected in some countries (i.e. Croatia and Romania) due to labour shortages associated with massive emigration and the fact that employers have sufficient leverage to demand that employees on full-time open ended contracts work irregular hours contingent on company needs.” Social partners, and especially trade unions had less instruments at hand to fight precarious employment. The strategy of unions was to use the weapons of the weak, including legal initiatives to regulate precarious work at the national level, which experienced immense difficulties in conditions where right wing, or less labour-friendly parties were in power. Collective bargaining seemed to shift to the company level even in countries, as in Slovenia, where sectoral level bargaining had a major tradition. Large employers often initiated deregulatory measures, or pleaded for autonomy in regulating industrial relations at the company level. Innovative or ‘recombined’ old/new strategies on the part of the trade unions to fight against precarious work were mainly sporadic, and occurred in only a few countries, such as in Poland and Slovenia. Werner Buelen, of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers, a discussant at a closed conference presenting the major results of the project held in Dublin on 20 June 2016, highlighted the paradox that precarious employment is bad for all social partners: employers do not get committed or loyal workers who are interested in mutual skill development and company prospects; governments receive increasingly less taxes and face lower public budgets; and workers experience the multiple erosion of their status. How to explain, then, the emergence and such an extent of precarious employment? Labour market segmentation and the role of industrial relations in Hungary (a case study) In Hungary, by 2014 employment levels had reached and even slightly surpassed their pre-crisis peaks. However, employment rates increased at the cost of deteriorating employment standards in all the sectors examined. These rather negative developments from austerity and adjustment measures following the global economic crisis, including legislative rollbacks to labour protections and associated labour market developments. As a result, there was a significant expansion of already existing, and the emergence of new forms of precarious employment. A common pattern for all sectors is that the less skilled were typically affected by low job security, low wages, or both. In the automotive sector, precarious employment is limited to abusing fixed term contracts and temporary agency work, as well as being associated with jobs with lower value added activities. In retail, employers often maximize the level of part-time work under non-negotiable conditions, resulting in low wages and intense demands during condensed working hours. In inpatient care, increased work hours and intense demands were the main factors making employment precarious, especially for nurses. In construction, large employers, dependent on government investment, and sometimes suspected of political corruption, tend to dominate and set conditions within the supply chain, ending in forced self-employed worker-entrepreneurs, or even worse, shady worker brigades, competing even to save in health and safety standards. In general, employment standards are the poorest for the less skilled in construction and among temporary workers. Social partners, including sectoral or national trade union federations and employers organizations, have tackled the rise of precarious employment in a limited manner. The capacities of the sectoral employer and trade unions are modest. Employer federations lack authorization to engage in collective bargaining, but mostly represent joint interests related to regulation. Trade unions are typically only present in large companies, especially in those with a higher demand for skilled labour. Representation thus leans towards an insider strategy by default, limiting both the domain of union action and its capacity to address precarious employment, with their activities directed mostly towards regulation. While employers, and especially trade unions became increasingly sidelined actors in discussions about implementing social and employment policies, industrial relations in Hungary have been dominated by unilateral governmental action, regulation, and employment policy. Unilateralism, a highly limited social dialogue both in its scope and extent – creating sometimes alarming outcomes on the labour market, including the rise and creation of new forms of precarious employment. Especially acute is the lack of opportunity and capacity among sectoral unions to articulate their concerns in a constructive and effective manner. The lack of use of industrial relations instruments goes with the trends towards labour market exit, especially visible in the emigration of skilled workers. This situation risks further increases in disruptive industrial conflicts in the future, or alarming labour market outcomes. Most recently, and quite alarmingly, the Hungarian government has announced that it will accept some of the many proposals of an employer confederation to address and tackle the issue of the lack of skilled workers, including very tight labour market conditions, especially in construction, IT, and tourism. The measures proposed by the Hungarian government aim to secure the possibility of employing “skilled, culturally integratable guest workers” from non-EU member countries, mostly from Ukraine. Having in mind the xenophobic public propaganda against refugees by the Hungarian government, which was to be overcome with the twist of “culturally integratable” (i.e. acceptable) and “guest” (i.e. temporary) workers, this example is another notorious case of avoiding comprehensive social dialogue with organized labour, and the lack of official interest in finding an acceptable solution for labour accommodation. Certainly, institutional solutions for the inclusion of trade unions and employer organizations into decision- making should be re-instated and/or strengthened. Instead of constraints, industrial relations systems need to enable opportunities for developing authentic trade union capacities capable of influencing employment policy. The question is, of course, what social and political forces may contribute to the change in tides, including how big reforms may be needed to change these negative trends? Conclusion “[G]rowing competition… and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious.” Many might find it surprising, that these sentences were written 168 years ago, in The Communist Manifesto. The fundamental insight that they contain, however, can be easily translated into our current historical situation. Marx and Engels continue on the lines of class self-organization and action: “the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades’ Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.” Against this background, however, in our present historical situation, we see that in the conditions of shocks coming via economic and political crises, along with tremendous technological advance in recent decades and years, (forthcoming) job losses to robots, the basis for class-solidarity is diminishing, the social body is increasingly atomized, and its members increasingly self-centered, either due to deprivation or paralyzed by fear. Moreover, we see again situations in which groups of the exploited turn against one another instead of their exploiters. More particularly and concretely, for example in the post-socialist European periphery, the opportunities for self-organization and action are quite different today, and less beneficial than a hundred or even seventy years ago. We have trade unions already in place, which came into existence with state support and continued to exist by accepting significant concessions, especially when political elites needed legitimacy and requested support from trade unions to introduce unpopular reforms and measures. Trade unions – now that political elites and employers increasingly do not need their support, advice, or services as interlocutors – do not seem to have found their new social bases, and roles in the current stage of capitalist development. Here, at best, they cope with learning and using new communications infrastructures and self-organization instruments, as well as monitoring, networking, and research opportunities. All these are necessary to fight for and establish the conditions of solidarity across worker groups in companies, within and among sectors, national economies, and globally. Probably these are not sufficient to change the tide. A further advance could be to learn from the initiatives of forward looking trade unions in EU core countries, and their preparedness to tackle the ongoing and forthcoming radical shock of technological change and associated job loss, not to mention forthcoming economic crises. As an example, German and Swedish unions are attempting to address the issue of organizing the growing part of the labour force that works through online platforms, such as Uber or AirBnB. Such initiatives need consideration. But more generally, there is a great need in international class action and cooperation among trade unions. Only social solutions can be good solutions, there are only social remedies to fight an alienating system and its iron laws. Unions thus need to go back to their societies. That is, trade unions, especially in post-socialist Eastern Europe need to become more social, to find new roots of solidarity, and build organizations incorporating new social principles too. The path is thus long, difficulties, obstacles are many, our responsibilities are clear. The safer alternative for unions is to insist on an insider strategy of protecting and representing the diminishing portion of relatively privileged labourers within isolated, company- or institution-based bastions, with the highly limited reach of solidarity. In other words, the alternative is a slow death of unionism. The diminishing role of unions seems to go hand in hand with the appearance and the rise of more radical groups of the kinds of false prophets, which function on the lines of solidarity, but mushroom on the lines of false consciousness. Based in Budapest, Tibor T Meszmann, is an activist and researcher. His work and studies mainly focus on collective labour rights, unionism, industrial relations, and employment policies in postsocialism (with a more recent focus on Hungary). Tibor is a member of the Public Sociology Working Group “Helyzet” and a research fellow of the Central European Labour Studies Institute (CELSI).