Unions threaten more strikes if proposals for end to collective wage deals stay on table

Union representatives warned yesterday of further strikes if employer representatives do not withdraw their proposals for a differentiated minimum wage by region and sector and an effective abolition of a centralized wage agreement in favor of sectoral or even enterprise-specific ones. Today, union and employee representatives are to meet to discuss the next collective wages agreement and both sides appear to be sticking to their main positions: the General Confederation of Greek Labor (GSEE), the umbrella organization representing employees in the private sector and public utilities, wants pay rises averaging 7 percent while employers appear determined to bring the issue of minimum wages and the utility of collective agreements to the table. The issue was raised last month by Odysseas Kyriakopoulos, chairman and executive president of the Federation of Greek Industries (SEV). Yesterday, the president of the Association of Greek Textile Manufacturers, Eleftherios Kourtalis, weighed in in favor of Kyriakopoulos’s proposal, saying that wage increases in his sector cannot be determined by a collective agreement. «It is necessary that wage increases be determined only through the sectoral agreement, on the basis of what the sector can afford to offer,» he said. Textiles have been especially hit in recent years by the influx of cheap imports, first from countries such as Turkey and, lately, from China. Companies have laid off thousands of workers and those who could afford the investment have shifted production to neighboring countries, especially Bulgaria, where labor costs are significantly lower. Kourtalis said that Greece presents a unique example among EU countries, where employers have to sign three kinds of pay agreements, a national, sectoral and company-specific one, with the widest agreements setting minimum pay rise standards that constrain employers and add significantly to labor costs (about 25-30 percent, he estimated). The sector’s lean times and its continuing importance for Greek exports despite the recent troubles – textiles account for 40-42 percent of Greece’s industrial exports – favor its exemption from the collective pay agreement, he argued. On the opposite side, GSEE president Christos Polyzogopoulos argued yesterday that 20 years of mostly restrictive fiscal policies have destabilized job markets and have hurt employees’ incomes, while employers benefited at the same time from a 25 percent reduction in labor costs and profitability gains almost double the EU average. Despite all these advantages, he said, employers neither created enough jobs nor invested in new technologies. Polyzogopoulos presented findings from a study by GSEE’s own think-tank, the Labor Institute, which show that only 40 percent of Greek products’ surplus value can be attributed to research, technology and innovation, versus 53 percent in the EU and 72 percent in the United States. It is due to this lag in adopting new technologies that lower labor costs did not translate into more jobs or higher productivity, he argued, adding that, according to its own research, GSEE should have asked for pay rises ranging between 7.5 and 9.4 percent. Asked about incomes policy in the public sector, Economy and Finance Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis said yesterday that the state will provide as high a pay rise as it can afford. He agreed with employers’ demands for longer bank opening hours, remarking that banks are open to the public fewer hours than other businesses. He added, however, that any changes must be agreed with employees.

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