Mladen Novosel President of the Alliance of Independent Unions of Croatia: Workers’ rights and protection are a primary concern

SSSH stands for strengthening of workers’ negotiating position, for ensuring efficient protection of their rights and encouraging union organization and collective negotiations

Based on independent research conducted by SSSH in 2018 and 2019, the biggest problem of workers are working hours in terms of their uncertainty, as well as overtime but without a prior written order for overtime work, without recording overtime work and thus without pay, says Mladen Novosel, President of the Alliance of Independent Unions of Croatia for Diplomacy & Commerce.

1. Talks are underway with the Government of the Republic of Croatia on amendments to the Labour Act. What are your specific demands and what is your red line below which you will not go in these negotiations?

SSSH’ demands include the strengthening of workers’ negotiating position, ensuring efficient protection of their rights and encouraging union organization and collective negotiations. This would significantly increase the coverage of workers by collective agreements, which is in line with the Proposal of the European Commission Framework Directive on adequate minimum wages, which also contains a section on encouraging the development of a system of collective agreements. This means that we will not agree to prescribe greater flexibility in the interest of employers, but the law should refer to the collective agreement, because only then will employers have an interest in collective bargaining, and workers will exercise control over the implementation provided by the union.

When it comes to specific areas and requirements, we are most interested in working hours and the institute of part-time work. Based on independent research conducted by the SSSH in 2018 and 2019, the biggest problem of workers are working hours in terms of their uncertainty, as well as overtime but without a prior written order for overtime work, without recording overtime work and thus without pay. Namely, the organization of working hours with unequal duration, introduced in 2014, is an option that is being abused en masse by employers because the legal reference period is four months, after which it becomes visible how and how much workers worked. The Labour Inspectorate cannot help in supervising this either, because when they come under supervision in the middle of the reference period, it is impossible to determine when and how much the workers work, whether there was overtime at all and whether they will be paid.

We will also propose solutions to the Ministry of Labour that will help prevent the abuse of fixed-term employment contracts. Namely, our experience shows that employers use this form of employment contract instead of probationary work or to transfer business risk to workers, and none of this is an allowed use of this contract according to the law. The rights of workers under fixed-term employment contract should be fully equated with those under employment contract for an indefinite period, including the right to severance pay.

2. Which of the things proposed in the new amendments are most unfavourable for the workers, for their legal security and rights?

Statement given by the Minister of Labour that the main goal of amendments to the Labour Law is to increase the economy’s competitiveness, is concerning. Increasing the economy’s competitiveness is achieved through other policies and measures, and the function of the Labour Law is to regulate the rights and obligations of workers and employers, to enable the protection of workers as the weaker side, and flexibility through a collective agreement. So far, both employers and the Government talked a lot about the flexibility of permanent employment contracts, i.e. facilitated dismissals with the explanation that this will actually help to make less use of fixed-term employment contracts! However, to present these two forms of employment contract as a “system of connected vessels” is completely wrong. An employment contract for an indefinite period is a standard, both in Croatia and in the European Union. Everything else are non-standard forms of employment contracts that are available to employers and workers only for specific cases, for example, fixed-term work, part-time work, permanent seasonal work, agency work, additional work, etc.

Therefore, easier dismissal of workers will not reduce fixed-term employment (in which we have been European record holders for several years) as long as such employment is cheaper and more favourable for the employers, and by facilitating redundancies we would only get an even more precarious labour market – where workers are employed for a fixed term, but also where you can be fired at any time without the employer having to explain it. We believe that the conditions for dismissal are clearly prescribed by the law and should not be changed because of the employers who do not want or do not know how to apply them, as well as that all protective provisions should be maintained so that certain groups are not further excluded and marginalized in the labour market.

In fact, frequent amendments to the law are a problem for both employers and workers, and bodies that control them but also for the judiciary, and they should simply give up on frequent amendments in order to increase security and stability and better use their strengths which many employers are not aware of because they do not know.

3. You stated that you are ready to negotiate in good faith, but that the unions are also ready for union actions. What actions specifically if there is need for them?

We hope that this process of broad consultations will contribute to the Government’s better understanding of the current Labour Law and consideration of its implementation. Namely, the Government can somewhat compensate the lack of statistics and analysis and supervision over the implementation of regulations and collective agreements, which the SSSH has been warning about for years, with the information and arguments it will receive from their social partners.

We want to remind you that the consultation phase is followed by a preliminary assessment of the impact of regulations, which should prove the need for normative solutions, after which concrete work on amendments to the Labour Act would begin. SSSH is always ready to provide arguments for its demands at the table, and when that is not possible, then we will use strikes, protests and even collecting signatures for a referendum at the initiative of citizens, often in cooperation with other centres. We will be ready for that now as well, if necessary.

4. What is SSSH’s position regarding work on Sundays and how would you resolve this issue?

The matter of working hours, including work on Sundays, is one of the main program priorities of SSSH and one of the dimensions of its Rad po mjeri čovjeka (Work tailored to Man) concept. Together with our Croatian Trade Union, we are asking for changes to the Trade Act in such a way that working hours are regulated as maximum daily working hours from Monday to Saturday, and the employer could choose a certain number of working Sundays, depending on his interest and needs of the environment, season, etc.

We find the base for such an attitude in the demands of workers in trade and the opinion of the vast majority of citizens. Namely, numerous surveys, including the SSSH survey from September 2019 on working hours, conducted on a representative sample of 1,000 respondents, show that as many as 80 percent of them support a ban on working on Sundays!

It is our position that a free Sunday is a social interest, a personal need and right of every individual, and that the interest of employers’ profits in trade cannot be above the interest of the society. When governing this issue, it is necessary to respect one’s own tradition and customs, to determine the day of the week when people have the right to socialize with family, friends or, simply, to leisure. This was, for example, recognized by the German Constitutional Court, but not by the Croatian one, where the ban on work on Sundays was rejected twice already!

Work on Sundays brings a series of issues and bad consequences, from the impossibility to care for family members who need the care of others because on that day the so-called social services don’t work, through non-payment of increased salary to the worker, because in that way work on Sundays would not pay off to the employer, all the way to significant health consequences for the workers. The entire cost of remedying these consequences is shifted from employers to the trade worker and to the society as a whole. In the end, trade is certainly not an activity without whose work on Sundays the community cannot function, which makes the work of shops on Sundays even more meaningless. Except for employers, of course!

5. How has the general situation and the condition caused by the corona virus pandemic affected the position of the workers?

The pandemic certainly brought additional insecurity to already sufficiently uncertain working conditions in Croatia. In addition to physical insecurity of exposure to the virus in the workplace, there is also insecurity related to job retention and income preservation, as a condition for his or her existence. Many employers used the epidemic as an excuse and an opportunity to reduce workers’ rights. At the employers’ level, the crucial thing here was to show whether or not there were unions, i.e. it was proven that the union makes a difference because we prevented the arbitrariness of employers.

But, it could have been worse. The Government intended to legalize such employers’ behaviour with the Labour Relations Law in circumstances of the declared COVID-19 epidemic (specifically, by suspending certain provisions of the Labour law, give rights to employers to change employment contracts unilaterally and suspend parts or entire collective agreements), whose referral to adoption procedure was prevented by SSSH by sending an open letter to the Prime Minister (March 25, 2020) and by informing our European association, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which applied further pressure by sending memos to the Prime Minister of the Republic of Croatia and to the Minister of Labour, President of the European Commission, EC Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Human Rights Commissioner and President of the European Committee of Social Rights.

6. How respected are the rights of workers in crisis? Do you have information on how many of them stopped working/got fired?

On this day (November 19, 2020), 155,079 unemployed workers have been registered at the Croatian Employment Service (CES). On the day when the SSSH began to monitor the unemployment situation on a daily basis (March 23, 2020), 136,071 people were registered at the CES. Comparing these two numbers, it could be said that unemployment increased by 19,008 people. However, the situation is much more complex and requires a much “finer” statistical monitoring. The inflow into unemployment was mostly due to expiration of fixed-term employment contracts, but some did not even register with the CES (most often those who did not exercise the right to unemployment benefits, which is at least 9 months of work within the last 24 months), part of them retired, some emigrated, etc. Of course, there were also business-related terminations of employment contracts for an indefinite period of time, but SSSH managed to include a ban on this form of dismissal in the aid for the last quarter of this year for all employers who use subsidies to preserve jobs. It should certainly be noted here that CES’ measures were important for the preservation of employment, the design of which was significantly contributed by SSSH, especially the Measures to support the preservation of jobs in activities affected by coronavirus (COVID-19), mostly tourism, catering and other service activities, and the Measure of shortening working hours, primarily intended for industry. I already commented on the (non-)observance of workers’ rights.

7. How do you rate mutual cooperation of unions in Croatia and is there room and where for progress and for achieving a European level of trade unionism (like, for example, in France, Germany, etc.)?

Three representative trade union centres in Croatia are trying to cooperate, in the interest of their members, i.e. workers. So far, they have been the most successful in collecting citizens’ signatures for a referendum that would prevent the adoption of a regulation or amend an already adopted regulation. They have been successful in these actions four times already. It was the biggest test of their ability to come together and their strength and organization to collect the signatures of at least 10 percent of voters in a short period of 15 days, the last of which related to the pension reform implemented by the Government in 2018 and unions returned it as it was in 2019.

The trade union centres are still cooperating in the consultative process regarding the amendment of the Labour Law, and during this year they also cooperated on subsidies for the preservation of jobs.

Examples of France and Germany that you mention are not a standard for “European level of trade unionism” because their systems are diametrically different, from the level of trade union organization (where France records an extremely low level), through governing workers’ rights (where France governs these rights more through regulations and less through collective agreements), to the number of trade union centres (France has five, and Germany one). I would like to say here that it is ungrateful to compare models by countries because they were created on certain historical foundations, traditions and, for example, the culture of dialogue. Of course, it is always desirable to compare ourselves with the most successful and see whose experiences and good practices can be adopted or adapted, but in the end it is important to realize that we ourselves are most responsible for what happens to us. By this I mean the key thing that workers need to be aware of, which is that it is necessary to organize a union if they want to be stronger in the fight for their interests and protect their rights.

In this regard, in the end, we want to emphasize that SSSH has a highly developed bilateral cooperation with the countries you mentioned, but also with a number of others. SSSH and NHS have good trade union cooperation through the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) where we are members, and the third Croatian representative centre, MHS, is in the process of joining ETUC. The focus of SSSH is not only on cooperation with trade union centres from which we can learn a lot, but also with those to whom it can help with their knowledge and experience, and these are trade union centres in the region, whose countries are in various stages of accession to the European Union. Trade union cooperation and solidarity know no borders because solidarity and togetherness are the principles of democratic trade unionism and the only guarantee of success.