Helsinki (21.06.1998 - Irmeli Palmu) The Estonian trade union movement is generally in favour of Estonian membership of the EU. Estonia is one of the six countries which recently began membership negotiations. The others are Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Cyprus.

Since 1995 Raivo Paavo, Chairman of the central trade union organisation EAKL, has been demanding a referendum on membership.

Estonia's trade union movement is struggling with many problems. Union membership is not popular, and only 10 - 20 per cent of employees have joined a union. Pay differentials are huge and it is more a rule than an exception for part of the wage or salary to be paid under the counter.

The minimum wage law guarantees a monthly income of 1,100 Estonian kroons (USD 1.0 = 14 kroons). Chairman Paavo estimates that the average monthly pay is 4,000 kroons (less than 300 US dollars). There is a flat 26 per cent income tax rate, but no social security system. The State pays monthly unemployment compensation of 300 kroons for the six first months of unemployment.

Although the State pays a small pension to older Estonians, there are no public health, accident or unemployment insurance systems. Five trade unions operate unemployment funds.

Preparations for a social security reform are underway. A proposal has been made for a social security tax, which would be shared between pensions and health care. The employees' contribution towards financing the tax would probably be 4 - 5 percentage points. "If we want to be partners in administering social security flows, then we have to define the contribution level of employees. Currently employees make no contribution at all to social security", Raivo Paavo says.

"Tripartite negotiations are unknown here and, according to European Commissioner Padraig Flynn, this is something unacceptable to the EU. The occupational safety norms are far from satisfying. There are plenty of problems seeking quick solutions", Paavo emphasises.

Ulle Schmidt, President of the Union of Health Sector Employees, has conducted studies on attitudes towards Estonian membership of the EU.

"People do not know much about the EU", she says.

"There are many fears surrounding the subject of the EU. People are afraid that rents will not be regulated in the future, as that is the situation in EU countries. A few people think that in EU countries smoking is forbidden in the street and that this prohibition will be applied in Estonia, too."

"Union leaders have a more realistic idea of the EU and mainly have a positive attitude towards Estonian membership."

"A few people believe that the EU is like the Soviet Union and wonder where the sense lies in moving from one international union to another."

Schmidt characterises popular attitudes: "People are tired, they worry about their lives and they are not interested in the importance of democracy. Some believe that all agreements will follow automatically and that there will be nothing more to do once Estonia is a member of the EU".

"Trade unions have given their members some training in EU matters. The most interested have been Russian-speaking metal workers in Tallinn, for whom the Finnish Metalworkers Union has organised courses."

"It is commonly believed in Estonia that EU membership will increase Estonian competitiveness due to better legislation and education. On the other hand, there are worries about the future of industry and the workforce, especially in agriculture."

"The trade union movement is weak and needs the assistance which many Estonians believe will be provided by the EU", Schmidt notes.

*Originally published in Puntari (8-98), the magazine of the Union of Commercial Employees in Finland