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Estonia trade union chief predicts future tension over flexible work hours

Kaia Vask.
Kaia Vask. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Kaia Vask, chair of the Estonian Trade Union Confederation (Ametiühingute keskliit), predicts that along with disputes over pay and working conditions, work time flexibility could become a new source of tension between employers and employees in Estonia.

"What the issues are at the moment, are flexibility of working time, of course, which is facing  a lot of pressure from employers and where negotiations are likely to start in order to find the best solution that, one the one hand provides flexibility, but, on the other, also gives workers a sense of security. So that it is not the case that there is flexibility but the sense of security is lost. Sense of security is really important for employees," Vask told ERR show "Otse uudistemajast" on Wednesday.

Vask also stressed that while trade unions are fighting for workers' wages and better working conditions, they do not wish for bad things to happen to companies.

"A trade union is not really an organization that wants to harm companies or wants to hinder their activities. Rather, most trade unions, if not all of them, are interested in making sure that companies do well, because if a company is doing well, if everything is working, that means there will be income and the possibility to raise wages. People will be able to improve their working conditions," she said.

In addition, trade union members can help management to identify problems in the company's operations, Vask explained.

"We can see what is happening in the company at a grassroots level. We see the areas that the management of the company is overlooking. Or, thanks to our own specialists who work there, we are able to assess that some decisions are not the most prudent," said Vask.

"And then they come to the table for negotiations. Of course, it is then up to the management to decide whether or not they will listen. But quite often, experience has shown that the union has pointed out the way things really are, and decisions made contrary to those observations have not been the most sensible ones," Vask added.

The union leader also highlighted that in large companies, where managers have less contact with their employees, workers' requests for pay rises may not reach their bosses at all. And that is another situation in which unions can come to the rescue.

"In fact, the more liberal a society becomes, the greater the role of trade unions, because a countervailing force is needed. We can say that the labor market works like any other market, but in fact there are quite a few categories of workers who are in a weaker position," said Vask.

Trade unions would be strengthened by membership growth

In 1992, more than 90 percent of workers were union members, while now that figure is as low as six percent. However, Vask believes membership will grow once again.

"I think that rise is coming. Work is going on to raise awareness, to raise people's understanding of what trade unionism is. Because, indeed in 1992, when we are talking about 90 percent union membership, we had what you might call the council system of unions, where the normal thing was that you went to work, and you were immediately in a union, and there was not much questioning of that," she said.

If in Soviet times the trade union was a channel to attain certain benefits, now unions have a different function, Vask added.

 

"Trade unions still come with some  benefits now and there are certain allowances in some trade unions - just to help people in difficult situations. But that is not the priority. The priority is still to improve working conditions in general, so that people are better off at work, so that they have a salary that allows them to live, and so that all these things are in place," Vask explained.

Referring to the fact that trade unions in Finland or Sweden are much stronger and more influential in society than in Estonia, Vask pointed to the size of their membership.

"Their strength comes from the number of members. The more members, the stronger the union. If we say that we want a trade union like in Finland or Sweden, the first thing to do is to become a member of a trade union and do everything in our power to make things that people want, happen," she said.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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