A new version of the labor act discussed in the Croatian parliament has led to protests by trade unions, civil society organizations, and left political parties. Protesters gathered in front of the governments’ headquarters on Friday, October 21 under the banner “Za radnički ZOR” – an initiative for a workers’ labor act. The initiative warned against the negative effects of the new law, which would open the doors to more precarious forms of employment, uncontrolled overtime work, and weaken the position of some trade unions.
The government introduced the proposal under the pretext of adapting national legislation to new EU directives, which reflect conditions encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Formally, it is supposed to regulate employers’ responsibilities towards employees working from home, as well as offer basic protection to platform workers. But trade unionists Marina Palčić (Nezavisni sindikat radnika Hrvatske – Independent Trade Union of Workers of Croatia) and Denis Geto (Tehnos) warned that none of these aims would be fulfilled by the proposed act.
Croatia is among the members of the European Union with the highest rates of precarious employment. In 2020, the Croatian Pension Insurance Institute reported that more than 20% of all workers were employed on temporary contracts. The year before, according to Eurostat data, almost 6% of workers in Croatia had a short-term contract – lasting up to 3 months – making the country the worst in the whole EU where the parameter was concerned. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković stressed that the new labor act was to address this problem, but in practice it still leaves ample room for employers to avoid providing long-term employment to workers.
A new form of precarious employment has appeared in the form of platform work. Recent years have seen a rise in the number of workers employed through agencies and platforms such as Bolt, Glovo, etc. But while other EU states faced the challenge by attempting to structure the field and ensuring that the platforms bear at least some responsibility for working conditions, this has not been the case in Croatia.
On the contrary, the proposed labor act would provide platform workers no protection: some of them would never know who employs them, let alone who is responsible for guaranteeing a decent level of rights. This would have a particularly negative effect on migrant workers who make up a large part of the delivery platforms’ workforce, said Mario Iveković (Novi sindikat – New union).
Iveković said that the new code was illustrative of the government’s bias towards employers and their interests. “This is an anti-workers labor act. And what we need is either a labor act that protects workers’ rights, or a new, pro-workers government,” Iveković said during the protest.
The new law would give employers in all sectors more opportunities for imposing overtime and prolonging working hours. It would also radically alter the possibilities of organizing in trade unions. The current proposal favors large trade unions by stating that rights secured through collective bargaining will only apply to members of the trade unions taking part in the process. Existing legislation makes it extremely difficult for all but a select few trade unions and confederations to do this.
Incidentally, the trade unions big enough to engage in collective bargaining are also the ones who tend to be more bureaucratic and less active on the ground. On the other hand, smaller trade unions like the members of “Za radnički ZOR,” are often initiators of new organizing drives and industrial action.
Changes introduced by the new labor act would likely lead workers to opt for large, passive trade unions over smaller, active ones in order to protect a minimum level of rights. In the long term, this would bleed the small trade unions of membership, while workers could only count on minimalistic collective agreements, warned the organizers of the protest.
Although the government continues to ignore the initiative’s requests for discussing the new law, trade unions present at the protest stated that they are determined to secure a better piece of legislation, be it at the negotiating table or on the streets. “If collective bargaining fails us once again, collective action will not. Social unrest will be our answer to this flawed interpretation of social dialogue”, said Tomislav Kiš (Novi sindikat).