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ISSUE 62 page 6

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Social dialogue back in favour in Netherlands, Poland and Ireland

A long time has passed since the U.K. had any formal mechanism for national-level talks between government, employers and trade unions. Many countries retain such a system however. While its use has often fallen into disrepair there are signs that it is back in fashion among EU Member States. We look at three recently re-invigorated examples.


Strong governments have often dismissed the need for consultation with both unions and employers’ groups in recent years but it seems when there is unpleasant medicine to be administered to the voters the clever ones realise that it is handy to get both social partners on board. Having achieved the first re-election of a sitting government in Poland since the fall of Communism, Prime Minister Donald Tusk felt that he could do without social dialogue, refusing to agree to an already negotiated rise to the minimum wage and announcing an increase in retirement age without consultation. When his popularity dipped however, due to the retirement proposal and an anti-counterfeiting law, he was quick to enlist the aid of a reconstituted Tripartite Commission which he personally attended. By allowing unions to modify the embryo laws on retirement and working time the government secured agreement in the Polish parliament, the Sejm.
After the new Dutch government was formed following a coalition agreement the centre-right VVD and the centre-left Labour Party called for €16 billion of cuts but wanted to make the wealthy bear the biggest burden. They turned to the social partners as a way of validating measures such as raising the retirement age, increasing social security contributions and boosting employers’ responsibility for redundant workers which would otherwise be unpopular. It is thought that both union federations and employers’ associations will have their own proposals from which negotiations will ensue.
The cuts are much greater in Ireland but unions have also played their part in taming the worst of them in talks with the government over public service wage reductions. The Croke Park agreement of 2010 set out a trade-off between no strikes and no redundancies in the public sector. Now its extension has restricted pay cuts to those earning more than €65,000 a year while lower grades will have their hours of work increased. Shay Cody, the chair of the union negotiators, commented ‘We have achieved far more through negotiation than we could have hoped to gain through protests’.

Recent rulings from the European Courts

TUPE can preserve future pay rises

Zero-hours means zero-holidays

A case from the U.K. could set a precedent for the whole E.U. after the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) gave an opinion on the claim of employees  transferred from the London Borough of Lewisham to a private company. Their wage increases were negotiated by the relevant local government committee but were honoured by Parkwood Leisure Ltd. until 2004. After this, however, the firm ignored the rises agreed. The workers involved complained to an employment tribunal that this amounted to unauthorised deductions from their wages. The court confirmed that the TUPE regulations allowed the terms of contracts of employment to be preserved on transfer. This did not run counter to the EU’s Acquired Rights Directive, which they implement, as long as the arrangement was not ‘unconditional and irreversible’ as it was not in this case as there could be direct negotiations between Parkwood and their employees to vary it.
Two German workers dismissed by a vehicle industry sub-contractor have found that government short-time working schemes do not include holiday pay. Messrs. Heimann and Toltschin were laid off by the Kaiser company in 2009 but, under the ‘Kurzarbeit’ agreement, received a government allowance which was paid to them by the employer for one year during which they were on a zero-hours contract. At the end of this period no work was available and they were dismissed. On the basis that they were still officially employed by Kaiser they claimed holiday pay accrued during this final year. In its judgement the ECJ found that their position was similar to part-time workers rather than those on sick leave (see previous issues) as they were not prevented by illness from rest or recreational activities.

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