Draft employment bill riles unions, politicians

The Baltic Times
Adam Krowka, TALLINN

Members of the Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions (EAKL), as well as many Estonian politicians, have lashed out against the Social Affairs Ministry”s draft of an employment contract bill which, if passed, would significantly reduce protections for employees.

About 80 EAKL members took part in a Jan. 28 picket in front of the ministry building on Tallinn”s Gonsiori Street to express their anger over the draft, which is now making its first pass to other ministries for harmonization.

The bill proposes to significantly reform employment contracts and unemployment benefits. Job security and the compensation offered to workers who lose their jobs would be cut back in order to increase economic competitiveness.

The picket proceeded peacefully and was attended by representatives from several trade and transport organizations. The picketers, who used horns, whistles and a bullhorn to make their presence felt, carried placards calling for the minister to resign.

“We are standing for justice and we are standing for truth,” said one of the speakers addressing the crowd, “We built this republic!”

The protest crossed ethnic lines – speeches were given in both Estonian and Russian. One union leader had made the journey from Narva, at the eastern edge of Estonia, to take part.

EAKL also held a press conference on Jan. 29 to voice its objections, and its representatives said they were planning a picket of the Justice Ministry due to Minister Rein Lang”s involvement in writing the bill.

Political forces have also been mounting against the proposed bill.

The Social Democratic Party claims that the controversial draft injures workers” interests and rights, and has demanded that the bill be recalled.

Likewise, Finance Minister Ivari Padar, himself a Social Democrat, refused to endorse the bill on the grounds that its measures did not take into account macroand microlevel economic effects.

“Cheap work and undervalued workers must not be Estonia”s competition advantage,” said Padar at a meeting of the party”s policymaking council on Jan. 27. He maintains that the period of notification for termination and the support offered for unemployment in the draft are “unreasonable.”

Measures drawn up in the proposal allow an average 3,000 kroon (192 euro) a month unemployment benefit, which the Social Democratic Party claims is insufficient for a person who has suddenly lost work. Padar has suggested as a compromise that unemployment insurance for up to 95 percent of the worker”s last month”s salary could replace the compensation.

Strong criticism has also arisen that the draft had not been sufficiently discussed with the parties involved, including other ministers and the trade unions.

“We maintain that we have to deal with changes of significant influence that regulate the rights and obligations of a very large number of people. We would therefore have presumed that the principles and premises of such changes would first be discussed at the conceptual level in the Cabinet, and then with social partners, in order to ensure as widebased discussion in the society as possible,” said Padar in a letter to the Social Affairs Minister, Maret Maripuu.

The Social Democratic Party council supports pulling together a new employment contract law to raise competitiveness, however has called for deeper cooperation between the Social Affairs Ministry, employers and trade unions.

The Social Affairs Ministry has extended the deadline for harmonization of the draft bill given the large scope of proposed measures.