The growing role of legislative solutions to the regulation of working conditions

The case of Czechia and Slovakia

Marta Kahancová, Central European Labour Studies Institute (CELSI)
Monika Martišková, Central European Labour Studies Institute (CELSI)
Mária Sedláková, Central European Labour Studies Institute (CELSI)

Recent evidence from Czechia and Slovakia, but also other CEE countries, demonstrates that trade unions, with support of, or even joint effort with employers, increasingly prefer legislative solutions to improve working conditions. Through legislation, social partners have managed to introduce significant improvements, i.e. in relation to precarious forms of work including temporary contracts and agency work.

In this paper we examine why legislative solutions are gaining ground in CEE countries that have established traditions of collective bargaining and with fair levels of unionization. In other words, we raise a question why do unions (and employers) increasingly reach out for legislative solutions even if they have other channels of influence at their disposal, including collective bargaining.

In addition, we question the effects of such legislative solutions on (a) the quality of working conditions; (b) on the organizational stability, membership and reputation of trade unions; and (c) on the established industrial relations structures. In particular, we examine to what extent such legislative solutions have weakened or strengthened collective bargaining. The question we aim to answer is whether legislative solutions are crowding out the institution of collective bargaining, or whether they have the opposite effect: does a more detailed regulation generally increase the benchmark for bargaining outcomes and thereby facilitates more ambitious goals for future bargaining rounds?

To examine these questions, we draw on an analytical framework on innovative trade union practices elaborated in the introductory paper. Unions’ legislative efforts are framed as innovative, because only in the last 5-8 years unions openly push for legislative solutions while previously they attempted to concentrate their capacities both on bargaining and political lobbying. At the same time, in the past 5-8 years unions succeeded in significant improvements related to agency work, especially in Slovakia, through legislative efforts.

We address the above questions by examining temporary agency work (TAW) and healthcare – two sectors that witnessed substantial regulatory changes in the past five years both in Czechia and Slovakia. Evidence from other CEE countries is incorporated to underline the main argument.

The TAW sector in Czechia and Slovakia, previously unorganized, saw an important change, first, in trade unions’ willingness to represent agency workers even without direct impact on membership growth; and second, in employers’ willingness to regulate the highly liberal market of temporary agencies and working conditions of agency workers. In result, unions launched cooperation with employers and laid the foundations of sectoral bargaining. However, later these efforts vanished as both parties successfully sought legislative influence. A supporting political environment helped to facilitate this goal, where unions benefitted from sufficient political support. It is questionable whether the same goals would have been reached in more hostile conditions, e.g., with a government less supportive of trade unions.

In contrast, healthcare is a well-organized sector in both Czechia and Slovakia and has benefitted from established bargaining structures at company (both countries) and sector level (Slovakia). The dissatisfaction of some occupational groups, most notably doctors and nurses, with lengthy collective bargaining, often involving dispute settlement bodies, motivated them to push for legislative solutions on wage regulations. This brought a quick success in legislatively anchored wage rises for doctors in Slovakia. In both countries, doctors’ trade unions succeeded with their campaign for better working conditions without relying on the established bargaining channels. The success of doctors’ unions was followed by nurses’ union in Slovakia, but nurses were not as powerful and their legislative effort of wage regulation was successful only until the Constitutional court yielded the legislation unconstitutional. Recently all healthcare unions fought for a legal regulation of wages of all healthcare workers. While the nurses’ unions are not fully satisfied with the outcome, in general all unions favour the legislative solution to lengthy collective bargaining over wages.

The paper will elaborate the argument that legislative solutions are gaining ground because the costs of bargaining are increasing while trust in compliance is decreasing. In other words, unions find bargaining lengthy and increasingly difficult and are afraid of lack of compliance by employers. In addition, unions (and employers, too) are convinced that ‘only legislative stipulations are powerful enough to yield an improvement in working conditions. Law enforcement is higher than enforcement of collective agreements.

What are the implications of these findings for the institution of collective bargaining? While in the case of TAW, we find that legislative solutions are complementary to collective bargaining, evidence from healthcare suggests that legislative solutions are crowding out the long-established bargaining institutions and leave a significant part of healthcare workers without bargaining coverage.