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Romania Moves Toward Private Enterprise - and Labor Strife

ROMANIA's government is stepping up its economic reform efforts. Parliament approved a law on privatization of state enterprises last week, a few days before members of parliament were due to go on summer recess.

In addition, a package of tough labor laws will be awaiting lawmakers when they return in September. Aware that labor conflicts could soon undermine the pace of reforms, the government is negotiating with workers.

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The privatization law divides the country's economic units into private commercial firms and autonomous state-owned enterprises. A more comprehensive law on privatization is expected this fall. Adrian Severin, the minister for reforms and parliamentary relations, said 80 percent of the country's firms would become private.

The new law states that 20 to 30 percent of the capital of these commercial firms would be distributed among Romanians older than 18 who have worked five years, including retired people, as well as students and draftees. Vouchers, which are nonnegotiable for one year, will eventually become convertible into shares in the country's enterprises. The bearers of the vouchers are free to choose enterprise to which their vouchers will apply.

The Senate resisted such a rapid step, however, and tried to bring down the percentage to 20 percent. A bicameral commission will decide the matter.

Despite the heavy domination in the parliament by the National Salvation Front, Romania's ruling party, senators were quick to criticize the government for not offering an alternative model and for not providing more time to debate the move toward privatization publicly.

``It is a question of prudence,'' said Alexandru Birladeanu, president of the Senate and of a new society of economists. ``We are going toward a period of reforms with unforeseeable consequences. And these vouchers could create a situation where speculation and inflation run high.''

But Mr. Severin stressed the need to favor the accumulation of capital in Romania, and to allow the exploitation of the capital illegally acquired during the old regime. ``We are also hoping that this measure will give workers a sense of property and stimulate the work ethic,'' he said.

With industrial production 60 percent below last year's levels, according to Gheorghe Badica, the legislative director of the Labor Ministry, measures to encourage greater work efficiency are not only desirable - they are essential. Goods are becoming scarcer in the nearly empty shops. The price of gasoline was raised 60 percent three weeks ago. And small strikes that have occurred in the country since the revolution have contributed to a decline in production.

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With no remedy to soften the economic austerity period ahead, the Romanian government is hastening to formulate labor laws that would reduce the chance that the economy might simply comes to a halt.

Prime Minister Petre Roman, in his inaugural speech early this month, called for a moratorium on strikes. The Ministry of Labor recently proposed a freeze on salaries and prices as well as a moratorium on strikes.

``The problem is one of national consensus, of the necessity to give - not to the government, but to society - a period of time to produce a framework within which it can function,'' explains Labor Minister Catalin Zamfir. ``This new moratorium may be economically unviable, but it is the price we must pay for social peace for this transition period.''

The Ministry of Labor is concurrently preparing an antistrike law that many trade unionists view as too restrictive.

``With this law, only people who work at night will be able to strike during the day,'' says Mircea Miron, president of Fratia, a progressive confederation of trade unions that includes 600,000 members.

The law would forbid strikes in some key sectors of the economy, including public transports, telecommunications, hospitals, and the Army.

Drawn-out negotiations between government and trade unions could become dangerous as shortages of raw materials worsen. But the government can count on the support of Romania's largest trade union, the CNSL, whose 2.8 million members were part of the old Communist trade union, the UGSR.

But while trade unionists may see the necessity to cooperate with the government, for the time being, workers may not.

``There will be resistance to our reforms,'' admits Mr. Zamfir ``from the old bureaucracy of course, but also, paradoxically, there will pressure coming from the workers who are asking the government for better working conditions, raw material, and technological innovation. It will be difficult to say no, but it will be dangerous to say yes.''

The bulk of Romanian workers supported President Ion Iliescu in the last elections.

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