The European Commission is referring Estonia to the EU Court of Justice over its national law which does not provide sufficient protection against abuse arising from the use of successive fixed-term employment contracts or relationships in the academic sector.
Estonian law limits successive fixed-term employment to five years. If this limit is reached, the fixed-term employment is converted to a permanent contract. However, the limit only applies to fixed-term contracts concluded with less than two months between the contracts.
In accordance with the case law of the Court of Justice, the specific context of the sector has to be taken into account in the assessment of whether a particular definition of ‘successive’ fixed-term employment provides effective protection as required by the Fixed-Term Work Directive.
The academic sector is characterised by long closures over the summer period. In Estonia, the academic year ends in the first half of June and begins in September, meaning that it is possible for universities to employ teachers indefinitely on fixed-term contracts covering the academic year, by interrupting the employment contract over the summer closure period. This does not provide effective protection against abuse arising from successive fixed-term employment, the EC finds.
The Commission sent Estonia a reasoned opinion in October 2012, giving it two months to comply with EU rules. However, as Estonia has still not changed the law as required, the Commission decided to refer Estonia to the EU Court of Justice.
Estonian universities' practice to sign researchers on two or five-year fixed-term contracts - something they claim ensures the quality of education - clashes with Directive 1999/70/EC.
Ministry: necessary amendments came into force in January
The Ministry of Education and Research told ERR News that amendments to the Universities Act, the Institutions of Professional Higher Education Actand the Organisation of Research and Development Act came into force on January 1, 2015, which make permanent employment contracts a norm.
According to the ministry, these changes followed EC's recommendations and made the laws comply with EU regulations.
"We are unable to comment on the lawsuit, as have not yet had access to the court materials," the ministry's spokesperson, Aire Koik, said.
The amendments specify that a fixed-term employment contract concluded with a member of ordinary teaching staff or research staff before January 1, 2015, remains in force on the conditions and in accordance with the procedure established therein until the expiry of the term specified in the employment contract.
However, if an employment contract is concluded with a member of ordinary teaching staff or research staff after January 1, 2015, and at least two consecutive fixed-term employment contracts for the performance of similar work have been concluded with the same person, or a prior fixed-term employment contract has been renewed more than once within five years, the employment relationship will be deemed as one of unspecified term from the beginning. The conclusion of fixed-term employment contracts will be deemed consecutive if the time between the expiry of one employment contract and the conclusion of the next employment contract does not exceed two months.
Editor: M. Oll