As trade unions, we must ring the alarm bells against using the current crisis to undermine workers’ rights and increase flexibility.

As governments across Europe are implementing extraordinary measures to delay the spread of the corona virus and to protect the health of the population and the economy, industriAll Europe warns about attempts to shield the economy at the expense of workers’ rights and applauds those countries that are opting for consensual solutions and social dialogue.

IndustriAll Europe warns against repeating the mistakes of the global financial crisis 2008-09, when politicians upheld employers’ calls for more flexibility and subsequently undermined workers’ rights. The harmful effects of dismantling collective bargaining systems in response to the 2008-09 crisis, especially in countries most hit by the crisis, have been well documented. We saw how increasing flexibility mainly benefited big business and how the profits workers helped generate, ended up in shareholders’ pockets.

Today, we are highly alarmed by certain government measures in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

In Hungary, democracy has been replaced by rule by decree and Viktor Orban’s government is weakening already weak workers’ rights. Employers can now deviate from the Labour Code simply by verbal agreements with employees. Employers may unilaterally change working hours at short notice. Employment contracts can be terminated without notice. Wages can be changed and lowered below the minimum wage. Holiday rights can be cancelled. Moreover, there are no guarantees that these measures will be withdrawn after the pandemic since there is no end date to the rule by decree. 

Hungary is not the only country where the current emergency is used to undermine workers’ rights. In Poland, trade unions and employers’ organisations strongly protested attacks on the autonomy of social dialogue following attempts to introduce a regulation allowing the Prime Minister to dismiss members of the Social Dialogue Council. Fortunately, Polish Parliament rejected these restrictions to social dialogue. In Croatia, the government tried to introduce the possibility to unilaterally cancel collective agreements or parts of them and other drastic labour law changes. The Croatian union movement, swiftly supported by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and European Trade Union Federations including industriAll Europe, managed to prevent these changes.

Attacks on social dialogue, trade unions and attempts to undermine workers’ rights can also be observed in Western European countries. The French government is also ruling by decree, allowing employers to derogate from the Labour Code and collective agreements. Employers have been given flexibility to decide when paid holidays and rest days can be taken and, in some sectors, they can raise working hours to 60 hours per week and allow work on Sundays. Trade unions have expressed huge concern about the possibility to increase weekly working hours from 48 to 60 hours. They deem that especially in essential sectors where workers have been under pressure for weeks, this is simply unacceptable from a human and physiological point of view. 

On the other end of the spectrum, we see how workers’ participation and involving unions in handling the current crisis can considerably improve the situation and lead to acceptable solutions for both workers and employers. In Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy and Sweden the social partners have concluded tripartite and bipartite agreements on short-time work, extraordinary benefits for sick leave and parental leave, extraordinary technical unemployment and other measures to ensure that workers and employers receive the necessary support to overcome the crisis. IndustriAll Europe’s COVID-19 monitor provides ample information about such agreements. 

Commenting on the current developments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic across Europe, Luc Triangle, industriAll Europe’s General Secretary, said: 

“We welcome the efforts of governments to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, especially those who involve the social partners in finding solutions to support workers and the economy during these difficult times. However, as trade unions, we must ring the alarm bells against using the current crisis to undermine workers’ rights and increase flexibility. 

Unfortunately, we see that some governments are listening very carefully to employers, and not to workers and their unions. Protecting the rights of workers and keeping the unions involved is more important than ever. We urge politicians to not repeat the mistakes of the past and learn their lessons from the previous economic crisis when undermining workers’ rights only slowed down the recovery.” 

Contact: Andrea Husen-Bradley, press and communication

See also industriAll Europe's Covid-19 monitor