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Unions, Rakvere meat plant preparing for strike

Rakvere Meat Processing Plant production building in Sõmeru.
Rakvere Meat Processing Plant production building in Sõmeru. Source: (Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR)

The first known legal strike in plant history, involving nearly 800 employees, is set to begin at Rakvere Meat Processing Plant on Tuesday.

Rakvere Meat Processing Plant, which will be celebrating its 128th anniversary this year, was already a significant factory during the Soviet era, and shortly before the breakup of the Soviet Union, Finnish builders completed a new plant building just outside of Rakvere. Today, the privatized Rakvere Meat Processing Plant belongs to the Nordic HKScan group, reported ETV news broadcast "Aktuaalne Kaamera: Nädal."

The head offices of the parent company may lie in Finland, which is known for its powerful unions, but at the Rakvere plant, a union was only just formed last October, and it caused significant issues.

"If the workday begins at 7:40 a.m. and ends at 4:10 p.m., that is eight hours of pure work, minus lunch, which is not counted, but the workday lasted until almost 5," said Rakvere Meat Processing Union trustee Andrus Saaremägi. "The employee shuttle departs at 5:15 p.m., so there's no time to shower. Everything is done in a rush. This isn't normal."

Employees of Rakvere Meat Processing Plant commute to work from radius of 100 kilometers. After the wage dispute broke out, slaughter line employees first demanded a 50 percent increase in wages. By today, however, their demands have eased up significantly.

"Even if we achieved a 16-percent wage increase as of Feb. 1 and another 16 percent by July 1, even that wouldn't make up average Estonian wages," noted Estonian Trade Union Confederation (EAKL) secretary Artjom Arhangelski. "This would mean gross wages of €1,076 as of Feb. 1 and €1,195 as of July 1."

"Not one business that wants to remain on the market can allow itself the payment of non-competitive wages, so I believe that we are completely normal wage-payers," said HKScan Estonia managing director Anne Mere.

She admitted that, as a big employer, wages may be out of balance in the company, which is why there are plans to increase the payroll by five percent and overhaul the entire system, and the company is prepared to negotiate beginning in April. Employees rejected the proposal, however, citing a lack of security in the wage increases of its slaughter line employees.

"This is a new experience for them — that employees dare speak their mind and demand what is owed to them, and that the law applies here as well," Saaremägi stressed. "It is not the case that Estonian laws do not apply at Rakvere Meat Processing Plant."

Saaremägi is blaming the employer for muddling overtime pay as well as for supervisors' attitudes toward employees' concerns. Mere agreed that there is more than one issue behind the dispute, which is rooted much further back than just last year.

"Certainly we must communicate more with people and justify our decisions when we make any organizational changes or anyting else," said Mere. "I believe that the wage issue is definitely an important issue, but not the main one. I believe that we have learned our lesson, so to speak."

Who will be participating in Tuesday's strike, and for how long, is not yet known. Unions and the Rakvere plant alike, however, are preparing for the strike.

For the union, the current situation is an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to defend workers' rights. Since October, the number of union members at the Rakvere plant has grown from zero to 100.

"The strike is not good for either side," Arhangelski admitted. "It's just that the situation has gotten to the point that the employees don't see any other option than to give even more notice to the employer that there is an issue that needs resolving."

The meat processing industry in Estonia is comprised of 50 businesses and small businesses, five of which account for over 90 percent of the entire sector's revenue. Are competitors happy to see the leader of the meat industry struggling with a strike?

"It has been somewhat surprising how much support we have gotten from competitors," Mere said. "In that sense, nobody is happy that this is happening to us."

Saaremägi is convinced, however, that the strikers will succeed in getting their way.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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