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February 3, 2023

Political Labour Code

We will either have a new Labour Code or national strike. In a way, we will come to a moment of the truth: the unions will have the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to truly represent the workers, to bring them in the street to stop the mechanism of the government. Or they will fail again in their attempt to put pressure on the executive, paving the way for the political power to carry out its project.

Everything in Romania in ‘political’ and the Labour Code in the version upheld by the Emil Boc Cabinet could have made no exception to the general rule. The proof is the lobby made by the PM among the parties in the coalition supporting the government, last minute proposals being accepted (for example, UNPR has suggested that the collective bargaining agreements should be regulated by special law), the explanations given on TV channels every other hour on how many advantages the new code will bring, how it will encourage work, crate jobs, how it complies with all relevant EU directives, so on and so forth.

All in all, the feeling after listening to the PM is that all Romanians will lead a better and more peaceful life after the normative act is adopted.

But, as I was saying, it is a political act the government seeks to impose to demonstrate its power. The national minorities say they will vote for it, so does UNPR and UDMR is also expected to do the same, obviously in return for … political benefits.

On the other side, the opposition also politically wants to take advantage of the dissatisfaction to be caused by the new labour law. Taking the side of the unions, of the (increasingly) larger number of people unhappy with the Boc Government and its austerity measures, PSD, PNL and PC know they can claim the lion’s share in terms of popularity and dare hope the pressure of the street combined with a no-confidence vote can even lead to the fall of the government.

Labour unions, in turn, have a historic chance to prove, at last, their capacity to organize and unite workers in protest. Union leaders say the new Labour Code violates the Constitution. The series of protests is announced to begin in Oradea, on February 26, the day when the UDMR congress is also scheduled to kick off. Until March 15, they intend to gather signatures in support of a nation-wide strike. One of the trade union leaders says he counts on 1 M ‘very determinate and very united’ Romanians participating in the industrial action.

The camps are therefore set for the battle. The ‘war’ is about to begin.
To many commentators it is clear that the provisions of the new Labour Code are inspired by (not to say the result of) the suggestions made by the Foreign Investors Council (FIC) and AmCham. The government naturally denies any such affiliation, but the mere reading of the draft Labour Code shows it faithfully illustrates the proposals made by FIC last year. It is also clear that many of the provisions will serve to local and foreign investors, we can also admit they may serve to the employees, to a certain extent, by making the hiring process easier and also by introducing some more stimulating regulations. On the other hand, it is just as clear that, to the small entrepreneurs who have made the most of the ‘opportunities’ of illegal labour, the new code comes as a balloon of oxygen, if perhaps not more than that. The employees in a variety of sectors will be subjected to enhanced pressure by the employers. PM Boc tells us the new Code will make black labour sanctions, including criminal ones, harsher. Is that so? There have always been sanctions in place, but they were never enforced. Corruption, on the other hand, flourishes, is versatile and finds ways around any challenge. The customs arrest wave shows just how badly affected the whole system is and what octopuses and ramifications of financial, personal, institutional and political interests dominate it. Can anyone actually imagine that the machinery in the finance system, including the Financial Squad, financial and labour inspections can be much different? Let’s be serious. But, of course, anyone is presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

It is equally true that, the way it is drafted, the new Code seeks to cut some of the unions’ powers. ‘Perhaps there are provisions which are not making the unions as strong as they may want to be, but the same provisions are strengthening this country from the point of view of our capacity of having more jobs right here’, PM Emil Boc said. This is why, to the trade union leaders, the upcoming battle will be crucial. Once lost, things cannot be undone. While the current Labour Code, inspired by the labour legislation before 1989 and even by the one during the social-democrat ruling of the ‘90s (although the last version was out in 2003) has been giving more protection to the employee, the new one is clearly tipping the scales in the employer’s favour.

Under the pressure of his own party (PDL), of President Traian Basescu who keeps saying he wants an independent prime-minister able to offer a different style of governance, focussed on economic re-launch, PM Emil Boc is, in turn, playing one of his last cards. If he wins the war with the street, he will be remembered as the PM who silenced the unions – perhaps the only actual victory of his term. If, on the other hand, he loses, he will be remembered as the PM defeated by the public discontentment over his austerity policies and attempt to promote an unpopular and improper Labour Code.

Anyway, by pushing the Code by asking for a vote of confidence over it, the political aspect of the matter becomes primordial. The UDMR congress and the election of its new leader will be crucial. The new UDMR leader will either choose to continue in the government alongside PDL, or to join the opposition in order for the Union not to lose even more of its popularity and run the risk of missing the Parliament at the next election. Drawing the line, we can see that the actual provisions of the Code are not really that important. What override them are the political interests and circumstantial alliances.

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