Baltics braced for labour turmoil

April 30, 2004

When the three Baltic accession states join the European Union next month, just a handful of academics will be on the ground to observe the fusion of their aggressive market-led economies.

The systematic study of labour relations, workers' rights and observance of corporate responsibility has been out of fashion in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania since the fall of Communism. Universities have largely embraced the pan-European thirst for economic relevance, and other disciplines have come to the fore.

But Charles Woolfson, prospective Marie Curie chair at Latvia University's EuroFaculty, sees academic monitoring as vital given the potential for increased conflict when Baltic neoliberalism rubs up against the expectations of labour relations as they are practised in the rest of the EU.

"They have embraced the market philosophy with an aggressive form of neoliberalism. The counterbalances - employee representation, developing civil society, notions of accountability and corporate social responsibility - are far down the social barometer.

"With EU accession only days away, a number of East European countries are having to face up to the issue that the pendulum has swung too far towards employer interests," he said.

While some Baltic states have adopted EU-inspired labour codes to systematise rights in the workplace, Estonia, for one, has been resistant.

"The final monitoring report (on accession) identifies Estonia as the only one of the eight accession states where questions of employee rights are noted as matters of 'serious concern'," Dr Woolfson said.

"In EC-speak it doesn't get much worse than this. Trade unions are largely flat on their back. Fifteen years of continuous employee disempowerment in the work-place means there are no effective interlocutors. Even the employers are having difficulty getting their act together," Dr Woolfson said.

The resulting vacuum has been filled by organisations such as Lithuania's Free Market Institute, which has close links to the ministries and industry, and acts as a local sounding board for International Monetary Fund policies of adjustment based on differentiated standards of labour protection as a form of competitive advantage for the accession states.

Working with academics from universities across the three Baltic states, Dr Woolfson wants to build on an earlier survey conducted in the preceding stage of accession alignment. It found that health and safety ranked well below issues such as job security among 3,000 workplace respondents.

"It was disappointing that even where health and safety ideas existed, the knowledge on the shop floor was at a very low level.

"I want to see if - in the intervening years - there is evidence of significant developments in terms of the capacity of employees to engage in workplace dialogue."

When Dr Woolfson, who is reader in law at Glasgow University, arrived in the Baltics for his earlier research, he tried to get in touch with industrial sociologists. They said they did not exist any more - that in Soviet times they had such people, but since the transition no one was interested in these questions.

"My mission is to try to re-establish some academic space for what might broadly be grouped under the heading of working environment issues. There are some good scholars in the Baltic who are concerned with these issues.

But in terms of a coherent interdisciplinary approach - industrial relations, labour law, the working environment - this kind of disciplinary mix has yet to gel in any real sense."

Dr Woolfson believes that new forms of social turbulence will arise as employees in the accession states compare their working environment unfavourably with counterparts in the rest of the EU.

"The situation is fluid and this is why it is important that there should be social scientists teaching and doing real-time research in Eastern Europe. What happens in the new member accession states will have profound effects on the rest of Europe, which is presumably why the commission has awarded this chair for the next three years." Fewer than a dozen Marie Curie chairs have been appointed so far - only three in the social sciences.

Information on Marie Curie chairs can be found at www.ukro.ac.uk/mobility

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