2002 the year of massive strikes?

In 2002, the Czech Government may have to face numerous strikes as tens of thousands of workers are expected to be laid-off in the country's iron and steel industry, the mining industry, and the energy sector. In the worst case scenario, some 36 000 workers could find themselves jobless next year. In an effort to make the prospected downsizing as painless as possible, the government and trade unions have spent months discussing their options. Dita Asiedu has more:

The activation of the Temelin nuclear power plant in South Bohemia coupled by the privatisation of the energy sector are soon expected to leave their marks not only on the energy sector but also in the mining industry. With privatisation, the energy sector will be left mainly in the hands of foreign investors, and supply to the domestic energy market will be open to foreign companies. When Temelin comes into full operation, the demand for coal will drop significantly. The privatisation of the energy giant CEZ will be followed by the closure of a minimum of two power stations and demand for coal from mines in North Bohemia will fall dramatically. Zdenek Malek is the Deputy-Chairman of the Czech-Moravian Chamber of Trade Unions:

"We can continue extracting our coal but it comes at a big cost. Statistics show that if we import coal from Australia, it would be at the same price as when we excavate it ourselves. That is why certain pits are not to be used because they are simply too expensive. So, we have created what are called Regional Tripartite Councils so that not only from the side of the government but directly in the region, these problems can be discussed."

According to Mr. Malek, the country's Council for Social and Economic Agreement - the official body which bargains between representatives from the government, employees and union structures - has also been trying to confront the problem:

"What our unions are trying to get is not only the severance pay or redundancy pay but also re-training courses for certain people. We are also urging our government to be involved more in what is usually called the active employment policy. It is not only a question of the people in that region. Unemployment is somewhere between 8% and 9% so in those regions affected the most, the rate of unemployment reaches up to 13%. So if this problem is not tackled properly, it can cause social unbalance and very big tension."

Massive downsizing is also expected to have a serious impact on the iron and steel industry where some ten thousand workers are expected to lose their jobs. In Moravia, one of the country's biggest steelworks, Nova hut', announced on Sunday, that it would have to lay off three thousand of its 12 500 workers within the next 18 months. In spring last year iron and steel workers threatened to go on strike. It was called off only after the government, promised to subsidise iron and steel production and give laid-off workers a ten- month salary severance pay. What remains uncertain is whether the next round of lay-offs will also happen without major industrial action.