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7th European Regional Meeting in Budapest New Social Dialogue in Central and Eastern Europe

Social dialogue in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) mainly takes place at the national tripartite level and to a lesser extent at other levels, including the enterprise one. Bipartite social dialogue at the sectoral level remains relatively underdeveloped – in contrast to practices in Western Europe. Bridging the gap between these two levels has become an important goal for the European Union, which seeks to strengthen the social partners in new Member States so they can participate effectively in social dialogue at the sectoral, national, and EU level.

Article | 08 March 2005

BUDAPEST – "The enlargement of the European Union presents a challenge for European industrial relations because of the considerable differences between the industrial relations systems of most of the new Member States compared with those of the majority of EU-15", according to European Commission's report Industrial Relations in Europe 2004, published in January. While the coverage rate of collective agreements in the EU-15 is approximately two-thirds, it is just 25-30 per cent on average in the new Member States, according to the report.

These observations do not apply only to the new members of the EU, but to most CEE countries, says Youcef Ghellab, Senior Specialist for Social Dialogue and Industrial Relations at the ILO's Subregional Office for Central and Eastern Europe in Budapest. The focus on tripartite national cooperation is mainly due to a long tradition of central control and given the difficulties of the transition process, the governments have preferred to keep a relatively tight hand on economic and social reforms".

Southeast Europe following the CEE path

The situation in Southeast Europe (SEE) is somehow different from that in the new EU Member States, Mr Ghellab notes. "Countries like Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro, to mention a few, are now in the process of consolidating tripartite institutions".

"Thanks to the ILO, a kind of partnership is emerging between the new EU member states and Southeast Europe to pass on experience and expertise," says Mr. Ghellab. He points to efforts at Czech-Serbian partnership, financed by the Czech Republic, and the involvement of experts from Hungary and Poland in Montenegro and FYR Macedonia as well experts from Lithuania and Slovenia, respectively, in Ukraine and Bulgaria. This is in addition to strong participation from Western European countries, such as Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland and Italy.

The content of agreements

The contents of collective agreements in CEE countries are often weak, sometimes simply repeating provisions already contained in labour legislation.

"A part of this is due to the fact that employers don't have a lot to give, due to scarce resources, while another problem is the lack of experience and practice in formulating innovative agreements", says Mr. Ghellab. "This will certainly improve in the future." However, observers' comments about the contents of agreements are generally limited to a small number of sectoral agreements, because little concrete information is available about company-level agreements – which are much more widespread in CEE countries.

A study published in 2003 by the ILO and the European Commission noted that while the total number of sectoral-level agreements in Italy reached 600-700, and in France and Belgium some 1100-1400 in 2001, this compared to just 19 in Hungary, 60 in Bulgaria and 140 in Poland. (See Youcef Ghellab and Daniel Vaughan-Whitehead, eds. Sectoral Social Dialogue in Future EU Member States: The Weakest Link. Budapest, 2003.)

Many agreements at sectoral level are signed in the public sector, such as in Bulgaria and Poland, while several others are "multi-employer" agreements rather than "true sectoral-level agreements". This is indicative of the situation in the region overall.

Recently, there has been evidence of an upswing in sectoral bargaining in countries like Hungary where, according to the recently published 2004 Annual Report by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) "fifteen sectoral and eight subsectoral dialogue committees had been established and common statements of intention had been signed in six sectors". In addition over 50 subsectoral dialogue committees are expected to start functioning in the near future.

A new model emerging?

"The new member states have shaken things up a bit" when it comes to social dialogue in the EU, says Mr Ghellab, due to their strong focus on tripartite consultation at the national level.

In the long term, Mr. Ghellab suggests that the European social model could emerge with dialogue on various levels – such as at the supranational EU level, as well as at the national, sectoral, regional and company levels.