Government gives in to trade union pressure

  • 2000-02-17
  • By Jaclyn M. Sindrich
TALLINN – After weathering months of pressure in one of Estonia's greatest legal debates in recent years, the government backed down last week in a feud with trade unions over new labor contract legislation and finally dropped the Justice Ministry's draft.

Trade unions were satisfied with the news.

The government's intention to include the labor contract into the controversial right of debt law was backpedaling on protection gained since 1991 for Estonia's 600,000 wage earners, according to Margarita Tuch, Baltic labor law project attorney for the Estonian Association of Trade Unions, Estonia's principal trade union alliance.

The right of debt law regards the employer and employee as equal powers and is criticized for being too general and lax.

"Today we have thousands of layoffs in which employees receive no compensation. We certainly don't want a situation where the regulations of today would become even softer tomorrow," said Raivo Paavo, chairman of the 26-union member association.

Tarmo Kris, attorney for the Confederation of Employers and Industries of the Trade Union Central League, reminded that the trade unions have yet to sit down at the negotiating table but insisted that employers generally supported the government's action.

"We hope this will bring flexibility to the labor market and help to develop [employer-employee] relations, and that there will be more room for collective bargaining," Kris said.

"Equal footing"

As Estonia moves ever swiftly toward becoming a progressive, European Union-caliber, human rights-conscious nation, labor issues have left little to be desired, according to trade union representatives.

Only about 15 percent of Estonia's 600,000 wage earners are members of trade unions – a relatively new concept for a country where just a decade ago the idea would have been ludicrous under the powers of the Soviet regime.

Although last week's action was a postitive step for the unions, Paavo wasn't totally content. Most labor acts are in dire need of updates, and provisions covering things such as insurance for work accidents, occupational diseases and unemployment need to be drafted in order to put Estonia on equal footing with other nations, he said.

In addition, he wants a separate trade union act formulated, which is a source of tension among his association and the Social and Justice ministries, Paavo said.

Meanwhile, the preparations for drafting a new labor contract act and other labor-related acts are in the works. A committee headed by Tartu University labor law professor Inge-Maret Orgo along with representatives of the trade unions, employers, the government and experts is slated to draw up the basic principles in the coming months.

Paavo added that he would like to see Estonia's trade unions become a larger force – up to at least one-quarter of all wage earners – as the people become more familiar with them.

"If we can make good on our schedule and keep up the social dialogue, the community will understand [trade unions] more," he said.