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2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Estonia

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 20 November 2008
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Estonia, 20 November 2008, available at: [accessed 20 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 1,300,000
Capital: Tallinn
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 182

Public servants do not have the right to strike. Violations of trade union rights take place in the public and private sector, and the labour inspectorates are often unwilling to address these violations.

Trade union rights in law

The trade union law, adopted in 2000, guarantees the right to organise.

Personal data: Anti-union discrimination is prohibited both by the Employment Contract Act and the Trade Union Act. However, the Income Tax Act obliges trade unions to provide a list of all members, including their personal identity codes, unless their members object to this declaration and thus forfeit the tax rebate on their union dues.

Collective bargaining: Collective bargaining and collective dispute resolution is provided for by law.

Strike-ban in the public sector: Public servants working at the state or municipal level are denied the right to strike. The ban applies to all employees, including support staff such as drivers and electricians. The government promised seven years ago to lift the ban. In January, the Estonian Trade Union Confederation (EAKL, affiliated to the ITUC), lodged a formal complaint before the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (Case No. 2543) concerning the right to strike in the public service. In a letter to the ILO dated 7 November 2007, the Ministry of Social Affairs of Estonia agreed "that the general strike-ban in the public sector is not in full compliance with the concept of freedom of association and the right to organise" and confirmed that "the new Public Service Act will eliminate this shortcoming in the near future".

The Collective Dispute Resolutions Act also restricts the right to strike of workers in "enterprises and agencies which satisfy the primary need of the population and the economy" (section 21(3) and 4)) requiring that minimum services must be maintained during a strike. This is a broad concept that does not clearly define what are to be considered "essential services".

Workplace representation: The new Workers' Representative Act came into force on 1 February. Though the government initially intended to decrease the role of trade unions in the workplace, the hard work of EAKL and international solidarity support ensured an acceptable outcome. Trade union shop stewards retained their workplace rights and facilities but have to work together with the workers' representatives elected by the staff general assembly.

The new Act seeks to regulate the activities of workers' representatives including the elections, rights and obligations of representatives and employers, the provision of information, consultation and the role of the State. However, public service unions have lost the right to information and consultation in respect of organisational change.

The new Act also introduced sanctions for companies that fail to involve trade unions in the information and consultation procedures. However, there is still no provision that would impose adequate sanctions on companies for other violations of trade union rights.

The 2005 Act on Workers' Involvement in Community-Scale Undertakings, Community-Scale Groups of Undertakings and European Companies regulates the European Works Councils and information and consultation rights in European companies. Workers' representatives for the companies mentioned in the Act have to be appointed by a workers' general assembly convened by the employer. Trade unions believe that the real purpose of the new law is to diminish their influence in multinationals and to enable employers to manipulate workers' representatives. Trade unions were not consulted prior to the adoption of the text.

Trade union rights in practice and Violations in 2007

Background: Estonia, while being successful in terms of economy and employment, is statistically a country with one of the most unequal income distribution in the EU. However, trade unions are becoming increasingly influential. Street riots in April created a sense of insecurity, but the Ministry of Interior's attempt to pass laws restricting the right of assembly did not gain public support. In August, the Ministry of Justice circulated a draft package of amendments to the laws imposing restrictions on nonprofit organisations, including trade unions.

Harassment: The Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions (EAKL) reports that anti-union behaviour is rife in the private sector. In some enterprises, workers are advised against forming trade unions, threatened with dismissal or a reduction in wages, or promised benefits if they do not join unions. Sometimes so called "yellow unions" are formed.

Weak enforcement: The law prohibits anti-union behaviour, as well as failure to consult with trade unions in case of organisational change. However, the labour inspectorate does not pursue cases.

For example, when a "HT Laevateenindus company" changed the working conditions of the Melodia ship crew in January, the employer ignored the legal rules on informing the trade union in advance. Seafarers' Independent Trade Union (EMSA, affiliated to the EAKL), could not intervene in time to defend its members, and the workers were basically forced to accept new conditions. EMSA turned to the labour inspectorate, which refused to enforce the law. In November the inspectorate gave the official decision refusing to fine the employer, since there was "no public interest" in the matter. EMSA tried to overrule the decision with the national-level labour inspectorate, which found that, since there was no "public interest" in pursuing the matter, the company should not bear consequences for breaking the law. The decision was finally upheld on 28 December by a Harju County Court resolution that cannot be appealed against.

Collective bargaining: Employers tend to be reluctant to engage in collective bargaining and delay the process. It is estimated that between 20 and 25 per cent of the workforce is covered by collective agreements. The pay levels of civil servants are negotiated centrally between the government and trade unions. Some public employers avoid bargaining as well. In the beginning of 2007 the head of the Tax and Customs Board refused to start collective bargaining with the Trade Union of Tax and Customs Employees. The law and existing collective agreement were ignored, but the labour inspectorate refused to get engaged in the matter under an odd pretext that information and consultation procedures were not applicable to public administration.

Union busting at JYSK: The CSR Code of Conduct of the Danish furniture store chain JYSK expressly protects workers' right to form and join trade unions of their choosing. Nevertheless, when a local organisation of the Trade Union of Commerce (ETKA, affiliated to EAKL) was established in a JYSK shop in the city of Tartu in November, the management reacted with an intimidation campaign against the members. Two salespersons received formal reprimands (warnings) for arriving at work a few minutes late and refusing to clean up the showroom. Workers were prohibited from using the company's watercoolers, refrigerators and microwaves in the rest areas: the management said that if workers had a trade union to protect them, then they should not use what was employer's property. At the time of writing, thanks to negotiations between ETKA and central management, the situation has somewhat improved.

Access to workplace denied: In autumn the chairman of the executive board of the Sillamäe Thermoelectric Power Station (town of Sillamae) denied the local EAKL representative and trade union lawyer access to the company premises. The local organisation of the EAKL-affiliated Metalworkers' Federation had duly notified the employer of the visit, but EAKL representatives were not allowed to meet trade union members or participate in the trade union meeting. The union sued the employer, asking the court for damages and an order to stop the employers' unlawful acts. The matter was still in court at the time of writing.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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