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Industrial relations in Portugal - background summary

  • Trade union membership is around 18.5 % (2013 data – IRData and ICTWSS Database, 2015) [1]. Union membership had its peak in the late 1970s and first half of the 1980s and since then has fallen continuously. It is estimated that private sector union membership is only around 11 % (2010-2013) [2].
  • Unions have a greater presence in larger firms, in sectors in which unions also provide health services, in sectors not subject to competition and in firms with a strong public equity share [3].
  • Portuguese trade union pluralism is marked by the existence of two main confederations: the CGTP-IN (General Confederation of Portuguese Workers) and the UGT (General Workers’ Union), both represented in the Standing Committee for Social Dialogue, a tripartite body of the Economic and Social Council, which has a consulting and planning function for the definition of social and economic policies. Nevertheless, there are some other minor union confederations, such as the CPQTC (Confederação Portuguesa de Quadros Técnicos e Científicos), FENSIQ (Confederação Nacional de Sindicatos de Quadros), the USI (União dos Sindicatos Independentes) and the CGSI (Confederação Geral de Sindicatos Independentes). [UG1] 
  • There are around 1 092 080trade union members in Portugal who are represented by the CGTP-IN and the UGT (2012), according to figures provided by the unions themselves, although these numbers are disputed. The CGTP-IN is larger but both confederations have recently experienced a loss of members in recent years: in fact, at its national conference in February 2016, the CGTP-IN announced that it had lost around 64 000 members in the last four years due to unemployment and emigration. In a November 2015 interview, the UGT leader said that it had lost around 80 000 members in recent years for the same reasons.
  • Trade unions have the monopoly on collective bargaining, but through a mandate they can delegate their power to conclude collective agreements to other workers’ representatives in companies with at least 150 employees. They negotiate on behalf of the trade unions and this mandate is only effective for the workers who are affiliated to that particular trade union.
  • There are no criteria for union representation that allow all unions to enter into collective bargaining on an equal footing despite the number of employees represented.
  • Collective agreements are only binding on the employers who sign them and those who belong to the employers’ associations that sign them, as well as the workers who are affiliated to the trade unions that are parties to the agreement (affiliation principle). As a rule, the agreement may not be directly applied to employers and workers who are not parties to the agreement.
  • However, collective bargaining coverage remained very high (over 80 %) until recently, since the gap between union membership and union coverage has been filled through administrative extension of those agreements to all workers and employers in the respective sector (portarias de extensão). Indeed, many enterprises apply these agreements to all workers in order to simplify management.
  • The latest ‘austerity’ reforms, however, have led to a major decline in collective bargainingand in collective bargaining coverage by renewed or new collective agreements and the corresponding extension procedures, with a slow recovery after 2014 (CRL, Relatório Anual sobre Negociação Coletiva – 2015, pp. 29 ff).
  • Collective bargaining takes place predominantly at sectoral level between the respective trade unions and sectoral employer organisations. Thus, between 2012 and 2014 the number of company agreements was higher, mainly due to the sharp decline in sectoral agreements.
  • As a rule, company agreements prevail over sectoral agreements; articulation between the levels is legally possible but rarely takes place.
  • In 2015, the collective agreements primarily covered working time, pay and other salary issues, and the duration/expiry date of the agreements.  
  • Since 2003, it has been possible for collective agreements to deviate from the law if they establish more or less favourable treatment for employees, unless the legal rules state otherwise.
  • The Portuguese Labour Code allows for a double channel of workplace representation through union representatives and works councils without establishing a minimum mandatory threshold (the number of members is only determined by the size of the workforce). Nevertheless, only 8.5 % of companies have workplace representatives, and this is the lowest rate in the EU Member States (European Company Survey 2013/Eurofound).

[1] Lack of precise and official data makes it difficult to provide figures for trade union membership in Portugal and there is a large discrepancy between the totals provided by the unions and the government’s union membership.

[2] J. T. Addison, P. Portugal, H. Vilares (2015), ‘Unions and Collective Bargaining in the Wake of the Great Recession’. IZA Discussion Paper No 8943.

[3] Cf. P. Portugal, H. Vilares (2013), ‘Labour Unions, Union Density and the Union Wage Premium’, Economic Bulletin, Bank of Portugal.

  [UG1]It is no more a confederation, but a simple Federation – as published on the BTE 16 from 29/4/2015

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