The IT sector in Southeastern Europe might seem like a bit of an unconventional place for labour unionisation, as it offers usually well-paid jobs with high social status. But labour issues and possibility for improvement abounds there, too. On 19 December 2020 members of the Discord channel Workplaces of the Future, hosted by the Collective for Social Interventions (Bulgarian NGO dealing with various social issues), organised a discussion with the leader of the Romanian labour union for IT workers Florentin Iancu, as they wanted insight into the experience of Romanian labour unions in this domain.
The labour union SITT achieved its first collective labour contract in 2009 with the French telecommunication company Alcatel-Lucent in Timișoara. This contract was exemplary and later became an inspiration for collective labour contracts not only in the IT sector, but also in other domains. 11 years later, there is a national labour union, with more than 5,000 members, which is the legal representative of employees in 11 multinational companies with all of them having signed collective labour contracts. It is pioneering work, as unionisation and collective labour contracts never existed before in the Romanian IT sector.
The beginning of SITT in Alcatel-Lucent represented a response to the company’s intentions and moves to restructure, that were made without consultation with workers. As Iancu recalls, workers’ rights had to be protected in the case of outsourcing: “We had three strikes before achieving the collective labour contract. For three months we were on a rollercoaster — agony, ecstasy, agony again. At the end, the fruits appeared.” The collective labour agreement was signed on 31 December 2009. It guaranteed that the worker would work under the same conditions after the restructuring at least for the period of the collective labour contract. This success convinced the workers in the company that “some fights need to be had.”
Romania has about 150,000 workers today. More than 60% of them work in no more than 40-50 multinational companies. The IT sector has internal divisions — some workers are developers, others are BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) employees, and a third group works in call centers. Also, there are differences between multinational and local Romanian IT companies. Timișoara’s IT environment has a strong multinational presence, which stifles the local start-ups when they try to find a labour force. Cluj Napoca’s IT ecosystem is more open to start-ups and multinationals tend to avoid it. The result is that labour conditions in Cluj Napoca are somewhat better for employees, because of a labour market that is less monopolised by corporations.
It is easier to initiate labour unionisation in multinationals, because most likely they are familiar with the issue in some of their branches in other countries. But in local Romanian IT companies, it is clearer what is the value of workers’ contributions, as it is known what income is generated in Romania. Multinationals tend to externalise their profits. So if someone wants to find the value of his work in a corporation, he has to study their reports on the stock exchanges where they are listed and compare data from different countries about the percentage of salaries, indirect costs, and profits in the overall budget. So it is easier to negotiate on collective labour contracts in local companies.
We are negotiating with each company the working hours, professional training, social protection, bonuses and salaries. This brings stability and a lot of comfort for each worker… But this is not a business. Labour unionisation is a civic activity…. We don’t try to convince anyone to join our union. Most often people come to us by themselves and ask us how we can be of support. We already have concrete achievements, that is recognised and looked to…I never imagined in 2009 that a labour union would represent a full-time job. We value the fact that we are a transparent and democratic organization where members decide the most important decisions. Even myself as a chairman of SITT, I have just one vote just like any member. For example, in a collective negotiation there are the members who decide upon the company’s proposals, if we accept them or not, or if we continue to push for better terms and conditions.
This is what Florentin Iancu explained. He admitted that in the beginning SITT didn’t promote itself as a labour union, even though it is, because unions have a bad name in Romania. He claims SITT represents a labour union where the old bad practices don’t exist; it is truly democratic, independent and belongs to the workers.
In an answer to a question about call centres, Florentin Iancu said that the greatest labour problems are there. He has the feeling people worry many times a day that they will get fired if they don’t do what is wanted by the managers. This fear will take a lot of years to overcome. In Iancu’s view, somebody has to speak on behalf of workers: They have to have some way to speak out publicly about their conditions without being sanctioned and also to receive support. As for BPO workers and developers — the first group feels more insecure, thinks it is easier to be replaced, but also can find a new job more easily, while the second, more specialised group, in fact, has greater difficulty finding a job at this level, but also has greater sense of being difficult to replace.
Another question was on taxation of IT professionals. Even before entering the EU, some categories of IT employees were exempt from paying taxes. In 2018 the Social Democratic government expanded this tax exemption. At first glance it was good — 16% less payments to the state meant two monthly salaries being ‘paid’ by the state. But the state also raised social contributions. And, companies started engaging in some tricks — like announcing they would not raise salaries for a few years, because of tax exemption. So this measure and its application is a bit controversial, Iancu believes. He also recalls the following:
The union activity in Romania and Bulgaria has been reduced to [the individual] company level, not the sector level as it is in Germany. At the company level, 50% +1 out of the total number of workers have to be members of the union in order for the union to be able to negotiate a collective agreement…The first threshold is to reach this level of membership. Then to negotiate collectively. For example, in the French company Atos there are 2500 employees. It took about a year and three months until an agreement was signed. We negotiated for six months. We were on the verge of going to strike.
He further adds that many times there have been threats by multinationals’ IT managers that if a labour union is established, the company will leave Romania. This is never the case and it’s always a strategy to strike fear in workers. SITT’s approach is simple — union representatives say at the beginning of negotiations that they can give managers the necessary time to relocate the company if their intention is real. But if it is not real, then stop using this argument. It looks like this has worked.
How much will SITT’s and Iancu’s experience and message be heard and change attitudes in Bulgaria? IT multinationals have a stronger presence in Romania than in Bulgaria. But problems with outsourcing, with call centers, etc. seem to be similar. Iancu is interested to see greater unionisation in Bulgaria, as Romanian multinationals often threaten that they could relocate if employees demand too much. He believes that work is not only done for money. One has to feel satisfaction, to feel the value of his contribution, and in a multinational, often employees have no say: The policy is decided by somebody living in another country on the grounds of regional interests of the company. In this context, one of the discussion participants suggested regionalisation of labour unionisation. That might be one small step closer after Florentin Iancu’s presentation and Q&A session with the Bulgarian public.
Photo (source): Boyan Stanislavski
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