• The Portuguese State’s Promotion of Precarious Labour Relations in Public Services

  • By João Romão | 22 Oct 09 | Posted under: Portugal , Precariousness , Social Movements and Trade Unions
  • The latest figures show that unemployment in Portugal exceeded 9% for the first time. Short-term labour contracts increased by over 50% in the last ten years. The state itself is exploiting precarious workers for permanent tasks. Young people are the most affected by this problem and organisations of precarious workers are beginning to gain prominence in Portuguese society.
     In Portugal there is a government agency called “The Labour Conditions Authority” (ACT), whose function is to monitor compliance with the labour law in private companies. However, 22 lawyers working for this agency lodged a legal complaint that they have been working for over five years in illegal conditions as precarious service providers though performing permanent functions in the institution’s hierarchy.
    They wrote to all parties in parliament requesting support for an organisation that deals with precarity in Portugal, the Precários Inflexíveis (Inflexible Precarious). According to the statement, their situation, in an “entity that has the responsibility to monitor these same irregularities in the private sector, is at the very least embarrassing and discredits intervention of the authorities in this area”.
    This problem affects 50 lawyers working for ACT, who provide permanent and subordinate work in ACT’s various services, within the system of “green invoices” (the invoices used by self-employed workers and free-lancers in Portugal), and who receive 700 euros a month (without a right to food allowance, holiday or Christmas salaries, rights which permanently employed workers enjoy).
    The lawyers allege they are “working under short-term contracts renewed annually, and not only do a normal 9-5 work day, but also perform fundamental tasks for ACT, which is contrary the spirit of “green-invoices”: we recommend prosecutions, we deal with offences, give advice, answer questions from workers and employers and ensure the institution’s core functions”.
    After denying the existence of any illegality in the employment status of these officials, ACT’s president finally conceded the need to provide another type of professional environment for employees. He announced the opening of a process of admission for 57 inspectors and ensured that previous experience in the job would be a decisive factor in this competition. However, the process of admission was opened in August 2009 and the previous experience of the lawyers who worked for five years in ACT had no weight. In the end, it is not certain they will be included in the agency’s permanent staff.
    Inspections carried out by ACT in the first half of this year, involving over 10 thousand companies, detected unpaid salaries amounting to 7 million euros, representing an increase of more than 40% over the same period last year. The inspectors also detected more than three thousand workers with “green invoices”, who nevertheless perform permanent tasks in their companies. According to ACT, this illegal employment deprived Social Security of 1,500 million euros.
    However, ACT’s lack of resources, especially human resources, can impede these processes from having the proper legal consequences. In fact, ACT does not seem able to enforce the labour laws, and is not interested in being an example of compliance.
    A good example of this inefficiency is the “call centre“ that Social Security will open in the Portuguese town of Castelo Branco, to provide information and advice to recipients of public social protection. Although this is a permanent public service, Portuguese Social Security plans to hire more than two hundred people on short-term contracts, using employment agencies.
    This was also publicly denounced by the movement Precários Inflexíveis, and the president of ACT guaranteed that it would carry out an inspection. However, several months later, perhaps for lack of means, the results of that inspection are still unknown.

    Diplomatic services, local services, health, education and science

    However, cases of exploitation of precarious labour in many other Portuguese public institutions are known, often in clear violation of existing legislation, while the state is reducing the number of employees: the number of workers with permanent access to public services decreased from 746,000 in 2005 to 688,000 in 2008, which means the elimination of more than 58 thousand public jobs in the first three years of the socialist government (which accounts for 70% of the increase in unemployment registered in that period).
    In the Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF), 187 of 300 administrative workers remain in the status of “trainee” for 13 years, with annually renewed contracts. According to the press, their union’s president declared that “the precariousness of these workers is contrary to law and good-faith practice by the state”.
    In the Portuguese Institute for Accreditation, an institution whose function is to recognise the competence of certification entities or inspection and certification laboratories, all workers, except the director, are working precariously, as service providers, which prompted them to call a strike that completely disrupted the Institute’s activities.
    Some Portuguese Embassies were also affected by the precariousness of their employees in 2008, when the 3-year contracts of 45 employees were not renewed. The Embassies of Portugal in Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, England, Spain, the United States and almost all the countries of Eastern Europe were temporarily reduced to an ambassador and one diplomat.
    Insecurity is also spreading in the local Portuguese public administrations. According to the union representing local-government employees, about five thousand workers in 2007 were working as service providers, mostly illegally. Moreover, 70% of workers employed by the municipalities in 2007 had fixed-term contracts or were working as service providers, and only 17% managed to get a permanent contract.
    The organisation Precários Inflexíveis recently launched a campaign – “Municipality Without Precarious” – which seeks to map the irregular situations that cause the instability of civil servants of local institutions. Despite being a very difficult phenomenon to denounce legally and fight against, due to the weak position of the workers and the ineffectiveness of the supervisory mechanisms and institutions, the campaign has brought to light dozens of cases around the country in municipal institutions or local enterprises providing public services to communities.
    The Nurses Union has called several strikes throughout 2008 and 2009, always with very significant adherence, demanding better wages but also against the use of precarious employment, accusing the Ministry of Health of providing specialised services and having permanent tasks performed by workers with temporary contracts or as trainees.
    Education is one of the sectors where the Portuguese situation is most serious, which is confirmed by an OECD study published this year, showing that 32% of Portuguese teachers work in precarious conditions. The difficulties for professional development and career promotion led to mass demonstrations of teachers during the academic year 2008 – 2009, when 120,000 of 140,000 Portuguese teachers protested on the streets of Lisbon.
    The main union in the sector reported that this year only 396 teachers were permanently integrated in schools, while the Ministry of Education recognises it needs 40,000 teachers. In the case of Politechnical Studies, at a level equivalent to university level, about 70% of teachers are working precariously, sometimes for more than ten years.
    State-supported scientific research activities have also contributed to instability, according to statements by the Association of Grant-Holding Researchers (ABIC), created to defend the rights of grantees. ABIC declared that there has been no increase in the value of the grants since 2002, criticised the absence of any support in the event of unemployment and denounced the misuse of researchers who ought to be exclusively devoted to scientific research in the performance of permanent professional duties in laboratories or research institutions.

    Insecurity, unemployment and qualifications

    According to the study “Education at a Glance” published in September, Portuguese youth with university education are much more affected by long-term unemployment than their peers on average in the OECD countries (51% in Portugal to 42% average in the OECD in 2007). For the same age, but with secondary-education skill levels, 61% of unemployed Portuguese are in the category of “long-term”, compared with a 55% average in the OECD.
    This difficulty in finding work for very long periods, even among the most skilled young people, goes along with the precarisation of labour relations and the massive rise in unemployment that have characterised the Portuguese economy and even the behaviour of the state institutions. The unemployment rate in the second quarter of 2009 in Portugal reached a record 9.1%, compared with 7.3% three years earlier.
    The number of workers with temporary contracts and “green invoices” assumed greater importance in the structure of employment in Portugal over the last decade: at the beginning of 1998 there were 483,000 precarious workers (less than 16% of the workers in Portuguese enterprises); ten years later, at the end of the second quarter of 2009, the number of fixed-term contracts and service providers increased 83%, to 843,000 workers (almost 22% of the workers in Portuguese enterprises).
    In addition to these persons, 890,000 „self-employed workers (registered in 2009) also ought to be considered precarious, working with the “green invoice” system, like most of the 273,000 „individual entrepreneurs“, who choose formally to create a company, even if it is limited to their own jobs and who are often working for a single entity. In fact, more than 2 million Portuguese workers are precarious, which corresponds to about 40% of the workforce.
    This precarisation of labour relations turns the “boss” into a “client”, while the “employee” becomes a “service provider”. The worker is isolated, with little possibility of representation and without any bargaining power. As a result, poverty also affects people who are working: in 2006 16% of EU citizens were considered poor and in Portugal this figure reached 20% (two million persons).
    This is the tendency in contemporary capitalism, and according to data from the International Labour Organisation, job insecurity has already affected more than 1,800 million people (60% of the world’s workforce).

    Organisations involved in the struggle against precarious labour in Portugal:

    MayDay Lisbon – http://maydaylisboa2009.blogspot.com/

    MayDay Porto – http://maydayporto.blogspot.com/

    Precários Inflexíveis (Inflexible Precarious) – http://www.precariosinflexiveis.org/

    FERVE – http://fartosdestesrecibosverdes.blogspot.com/

    ABIC – Fellowship Association for Scientific Research (researchers) – http://www.abic-online.org/

    Intermittent Professionals of Arts and Entertainment (artists and cultural agents)


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