Competition calls the tune for hygiene and safety rules

We cannot impose rules on the market by ourselves, says Chronis Polychroniou, head of the Labor Inspections Board (SEPE). In the aftermath of the recent accident at the Corinth Pipeworks plant, where six workers died, and a host of evidence showing a largely unchecked labor market, Polychroniou said in the following interview that cutthroat competition between firms and workers is hurting labor rights. How comfortable do you feel in your capacity as head of SEPE a few days after a deadly labor accident? It is a fact that in our culture and mentality, issues of hygiene and safety at work are still not top priority. We have been trying to incorporate hygiene and safety in the operational processes of enterprises, either through briefings, the introduction of institutional procedures, such as safety technicians and doctors, or the imposition of sanctions. Of course, we cannot succeed by ourselves. We need a wide dissemination of information and a broad awareness of the value of prevention measures by all parties involved, workers and employers alike. I have often heard you referring to exclusive and full responsibility on the part of firms. I wonder, how can a businessman know at any given moment what each one of his, say 200 employees, is doing? The law is quite clear that it is the owners of a firm that establish and organize operating processes and workers and ensure the application of regulations. And, of course, this responsibility is diffused down through a firm’s administrative hierarchy. But I cannot help but note that public opinion is not aware of any convictions of people responsible. In every accident, inspectors prepare a report which is submitted to a public prosecutor. We cannot follow up the case with the judicial authorities. But I find that they have recently shown energetic involvement. So, can we hope that with inspections and convictions the problem will some day be solved? No way. We cannot be proud of the record, even though accidents were down in 2002 compared to 2001. For us, even one accident is too many. What is missing are training and culture. We are struggling to change the mentality of employers and workers; the latter, particularly, must learn to fight for their rights. Quite often, even the survival instinct is absent among them; they surprise us, particularly construction workers. They will tell you, for instance, «I have been in this trade for 30 years, and you think you will tell me how to do my job?» Everyone recognizes that work is not the same as 10 years ago. We often speak of a completely unregulated labor market, of harsh conditions… Yes, conditions in the labor market are harsh, because of the competition between firms and their efforts to survive in a difficult economic climate. But lately, we find competition among workers, too. It is true that the emergence of new forms of work, outside the traditional model of employer-wage earner, are forming a different environment. At the same time, the influx of immigrant workers has caused a regression in labor rights. The result is that wage rates are squeezed and conditions worsen. And what is SEPE’s role? We are trying to maintain a balance in these harsh conditions, to promote labor peace that secures the smooth operation of the firm and fair treatment for the workers. It is a difficult task, because it is a balancing act on the razor’s edge. Consequently, do you tolerate a «little deviation» from the rules? Is it like the black economy, which everyone condemns, but at the same time recognizes as allowing segments of the population to escape poverty? There are objective problems in dealing with the black economy and labor; there are five times as many medium-sized and very small family enterprises, relatively speaking, as in the rest of Europe. Quite often we have «gray» consent to a state of labor relations that is not in accordance with the law. But let’s be clear, we do not tolerate violations of the law. Beyond that, I repeat, there is a need to find a balance. If a shop shuts a quarter of an hour after normal closing time because it served some more customers, it does not make sense to enforce the rules. But where there are excesses, we intervene because then there is unfair competition and workers’ rights are trampled upon. Nevertheless, there are those calling for even laxer rules. Everyone gives their own dimension to the term «laxity.» Part-time employment is perfectly all right if the rules are observed. But if some intend to hire a worker for four hours and he/she will work for eight, also saving on social insurance contributions, this is not only illegal, it is also socially cruel. This gray area of the economy is not diffused throughout the edifice. Most large enterprises cannot escape regulation; but there are some new-type enterprises in the service sector, cleaning, security, etc., which are habitual violators and we are intensifying our inspections. For SEPE, how will new forms of employment develop? We had a significant rise in part-time employment last year, although its share in the total labor market remains small, about 5 percent. But the rise over 2001 was 20 percent. On the contrary, there was a drop in outsourced production to order, which means that many self-employed workers will drift to employee status. As regards employees «on loan,» which has unofficially been around for quite a few years, indeed without rules and checks, I foresee the practice spreading considerably in coming years. In 26 inspections in beauty salons, SEPE recorded 24 violations of work hours and imposed fines totaling 41,000 euros; 24 out of 36 cleaning firms inspected were found in violation and paid total fines of 55,000 euros. Three security firms were found in violation in as many inspections, likewise a large number of hotels and small manufacturing concerns. Seven supermarkets violated part-time work rules.