|Author (Person)||Woolfson, Charles|
|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||Vol.11, No.23, 16.6.05|
By Charles Woolfson
Europe is in crisis. The future of the EU constitution is in doubt. So too, in some eyes, is the notion of a 'social Europe' - and part of the blame for that is being attached to last year's enlargement. For some, enlargement has become associated with 'social dumping' and a 'race to the bottom' in which the new member states are acting as a Trojan horse for neo-liberal ideas.
Whatever the merits or demerits of these interpretations, there is major reason to worry about safety standards in the new EU member states, home to 43 million of the EU's roughly 200m workers.
On paper, there should be few reasons for such fears since the accession process harmonised large chunks of legislation. In practice, though, the average workplace in the new member states is more dangerous, more unhealthy and more unhappy than it is in the old member states, the EU15. But the trends may be worsening; in the Baltic states a deterioration seems clear. At the same time, a new approach to regulating the European workplace may only exacerbate existing problems in these countries - and for the same reasons that the adoption of EU regulations has failed to lift health and safety standards.
Over the past 15 years, the transition to a free market, globalisation and the EU accession process have transformed the Central and Eastern European workplace. Since 1989, privatisation, restructuring, the change in the business landscape and the growth of unemployment, the workforce has become radically more 'flexible'. Liberal economists say this has helped make the region the fastest growing in the EU; but it has also helped ensure that their health and safety records are poorer than in Western Europe.
Figures show that, as a whole, Central and East Europeans are three times as likely to die at work as those in the EU15, with seven of the eight new members (leaving out Cyprus and Malta) reporting fatality rates higher than the EU15's average. Subjective measures suggest that feelings of fatigue are almost twice as high in the new member states. Working hours are considerably longer and more atypical (night work or shift work). Workplaces tend to be noisier, hotter and more polluted. Workers complain of more health problems, but take less sick leave. Asserting worker rights is hard: trade unions in these countries are generally weak and information about employee rights is harder to find.
The trends are also worrying. In the EU15, the risk of death at work has fallen by 25% since 1998. In some of the new member states - Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - the trend may also be downward. But in Latvia and Lithuania and to a lesser extent in Hungary safety records appear to be worsening. Overall, the average fatal-accident rate appears to be rising across the region.
Such figures need to be treated cautiously. Only relatively few years of comparable data are available, arguably making categorical statements of longer-term trends premature. Still, it is clear from almost every measure that workers in the Baltic states are the most vulnerable in the new EU and are becoming more vulnerable still.
Part of the reason for the continuing difference - in some cases, growing difference - in safety levels is the nature of these transition economies. Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) dominate these economies. These are typically twice as unsafe as large companies. Second, the growth of part-time and fixed-term contracts, plus a sharp decline in trade-union membership, have created a significant imbalance in power between employers and employees, with the result that in sizable parts of the economy labour-protection standards are almost non-existent.
Third, different experiences, expectations and responses to the world of work combine to undermine efforts to improve safety. Workers retain an attachment to hazard pay, for example, welcoming the money as a top-up to low wages rather than pushing to eliminate the risk at source. Job insecurity means there is sometimes tacit collusion between employees and employers to avoid or resist regulations.
The result is that EU legislation has not become embedded. And by Western European standards, regulation is weak. Where rules seem unclear or where they differ from domestic preferences, resistance to EU laws emerges. This resistance is in part a post-communist reflex and in part a reflection of the business-first mindset created by the 1990s struggle to create new, competitive market economies. But there is also an ideological element.
While the candidate countries were introducing new EU regulations, they were also being faced with the vigorous promotion of neo-liberal ideas and programs by organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, urging them to remove "red tape and other regulatory obstacles to private-sector activity". Such arguments found a ready audience in the new post-communist market economies and have left their imprint in tough anti-strike legislation, for example.
Yet, in some respects, the new member states are simply reflecting what has increasingly become the dominant approach at the EU level: to soften regulation and to encourage more flexible ways of promoting health and safety in the workplace, particularly through self-regulation.
This may have merit in advanced regulatory systems, but it seems likely only to aggravate existing problems in the new market economies, with their weaker regulatory systems. Self-regulation also assumes a reasonable balance of negotiating power, as well as dialogue. But in the fragmented labour markets of the Baltic states and other economies in the region, the odds are stacked in favour of employers and dialogue is limited.
By loosening regulations, 'soft laws' give local politicians and businesses more opportunity to follow their liberal instincts. That raises the possibility that the divergence in safety levels between new and older EU members will continue to grow. To avoid that, there should be an intermediate period before softer legislation is introduced, with more consultation with employees and the risks they face, and with the threat of sticks against employers being combined with the offer of carrots to them.
Analysis feature taking a look at working conditions in the new EU Member States of Central and Eastern Europe. Author gives reasons for the continuing difference - in some cases, growing difference - in safety levels in these transition economies.
|Subject Categories||Employment and Social Affairs|
|Countries / Regions||Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia|