Union leader Falbr: many foreign firms ignoring workers' rights

Richard Falbr

Take a tram ride around Prague these days and you'll see firm evidence that large multinational companies have firmly established themselves in the Czech Republic: Shiny new office buildings have sprung up all over the Czech capital - and neon signs for such giants as Nokia, Siemens, Pepsi Cola and Phillips now light up the night sky. The foreign companies have poured millions into the Czech economy and provided thousands of jobs for Czech workers. But the initial euphoria is now beginning to fade, and serious allegations are being levelled against companies once hailed as economic saviours. Rob Cameron reports.

Richard Falbr
In the beginning union leaders welcomed the arrival of foreign capital in the Czech Republic, saying multinational companies were able to offer workers better conditions and greater security than their Czech counterparts. Senator Richard Falbr is the head of the country's largest trades union umbrella organisation:

"We were never against the transnational companies. On the contrary: we were the only ones in favour of them.. We were very strongly in favour of foreign investors coming to our country. Our slogan was 'we do not care about the colour of the flag in front of the factory', while our politicians spoke about family silver and nonsense like that. We never said that. And in the very beginning of the 90s the attitude of the transnationals was very positive. They came, they brought capital, they brought new technology. And, frankly, they brought decent behaviour."

But Mr Falbr says that attitude has now changed.

"Now, when our government is giving strong incentive to investors, psychologically they are changing their attitude. They think they are coming to save us, and that they can do anything they want and like."

Mr Falbr told us of two specific cases, involving the German companies Siemens and Bosch, which both manufacture electrical goods. The allegations against Siemens are fairly minor; Mr Falbr says a request to the company's management for a meeting with union representatives was met with the words "You have no right to 'request' anything - you should beg, and do so with respect." I contacted Siemens for their response to the allegations, and was told by the company's press department that the remarks had been taken out of context and distorted by Mr Falbr.

But the allegations against Bosch are more serious. Mr Falbr says workers were physically prevented from forming a union at the company's Jihlava plant.

"A small group of people tried to create a trade union organisation, and a method of Chicago in the 20s was used to annihilate the attempt. They sent buses, they paid for buses, they paid the time, the working hours they lost, and they made lists of those who did not want trade unions. This is a clear violation of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) guidelines, which were approved in '76. I was at the TUAC (the OECD's Trade Union Advisory Committee) meeting ten days in Paris, and I informed the TUAC representatives. The Germans were here, they were very interested in the case and I think they were flabbergasted."

Again we contacted Bosch for their side of the story. We were told by the company's headquarters in Prague that the director there couldn't comment, and redirected to the Jihlava office. Unfortunately the Jihlava director was on a business trip in the United States, and was unable to talk to us.

The allegations against the two companies have yet to be proved, and it would be premature to claim that foreign companies are riding roughshod over the rights of Czech workers. But Mr Falbr says he has many more examples of injustice, and unions are now trying to persuade workers to come forward to give evidence. The accusations remain little more than that, but the unions say Czech employees are beginning to learn about the downside of globalisation.