The European Pillar of Social Rights: opportunities and challenges for the sectoral social dialogue on company, national and European levels

The seminar entitled „The European Pillar of Social Rights: opportunities and challenges for the sectoral social dialogue on company, national and European levels” was organized by BIE International on October 22-24, 2018 in Houffalize with the financial support of EZA and the European Union. It was part of the EZA project co-ordination about the “European Pillar of Social Rights”.

Participants of the conference were the representatives of branch trade unions in the construction industry and in the building materials industry coming from 10 different EU (Spain, Romania, Belgium, The Netherlands, UK, France, Croatia, Sweden, Germany and Bulgaria) and 1 candidate EU country (Turkey).

At the seminar the state of social dialogue in different countries and multinational companies was discussed. Focus was on the case building materials industry and more specific the case of LafargeHolcim. LafargeHolcim being one of the leading multinational companies in the building materials industry. The announcement of the merger between Holcim and Lafarge in 2014 and the subsequent 6,5 billion EURO acquisition deal between CRH and LafargeHolcim in 2014-2015 were real game changers. And this while the sector was still feeling the impact of the global financial and economic crisis (2008) and EU austerity politics that followed. The reshaping of the sector is taking place in a specific political and economic context that has led to continuous restructuring and has provoked a lot of social unrest within the sector.

During the seminar the participants looked into the possibilities of the European pillar of social rights to promote genuine social dialogue on company and sectoral level. Against the backdrop of surging populism and anti-EU rhetoric, the European pillar of social rights was announced by the European Commission as a return to social priorities.

The seminar started with a presentation of the Pillar and its main characteristics. In the presentation there was attention for the 20 principles and their possible impact. During the Q&A it became apparent that many participants were not aware of this initiative and its importance. The fact that the principles in the Pillar are not binding was seen as a serious shortcoming. The question was raised how this could contribute to improving quality of social dialogue on sectoral level and with multinational companies where these mostly say “they (only) respect the applicable legislation and binding rules of the countries where they have operations: nothing more, nothing less”. As was pointed out by the key note speaker this wouldn’t stop current practices of forum shopping/cherry picking by multinational companies. The participants pointed also out that practices of subcontracting and outsourcing seem in contradiction to one or more key principles in the EU Pillar, eg. “the right to fair and equal treatment regarding working conditions, access to social protection and training.” (5) whereby also precarious working conditions should be prevented; “the right to be informed and consulted in good time on matters relevant to workers” (8), “the right to healthy, safe and well adapted work places (10), “the right adequate social protection” (12).

After this introduction participants went into working groups and used the SWOT technique as a tool for in-depth analysis of the state of social dialogue on sectoral and company level. On the macro-economic level the financial crisis and the EU policies related to this event are still felt. EU and national austerity policies have had an important impact on the social dialogue on sectoral level and on company level and thus also on the concrete working conditions. Companies have chosen more for outsourcing and subcontracting as an answer to urging economic challenges. But it serves not only as a mere instrument for cost reduction. It helps also to undermine bargaining power of trade unions, also in a traditionally strongly unionized sector such as the cement sector and more broader the building materials industry. This has in turn led to more precarization.

An important strength is the EU legal framework related to European Works Councils and transnational information and consultation of employees (2009/38) and the #directives related to occupational health and safety (Framework Directive 89/391, Directive on workplaces (89/654), Directives on carcinogens at work (90/394), Directive on chemical agents at work (98/24), Manual handling of loads (90/269), Directive on physical agents in the workplace (e.g. noise – 2003/10) and Directive on personal protective equipment (89/656).

The EU Directive on transnational information and consultation of employees sets an important standard on social dialogue within multinational companies. That is unique in the world. This is especially important in a context of globalization and the growing economic and political power of multinational companies.

On the other hand, most cited weaknesses and threats were:

  • the phenomenon of outsourcing and subcontracting that leads to more dispersed workers, precarization, competition between different categories of workers, …
  • levels of legal protection of employee and trade union representatives in the different European countries;
  • management of multinational companies are less open to social dialogue;
  • decrease in bargaining power;
  • political and legal changes driven and supported by multinational companies such as LafargeHolcim, CRH, … leading to a downward spiral;
  • political situation in eg. France and Austria (right-wing government) with limited rights of employee and trade union representatives and workers' rights being cut back, etc.
  • attack on the social pillar;
  • no European legislation on dismissal and/or harmonization of conditions for dismissal; however this could also be seen as “an invitation to (continuous) restructuring”.

Social dialogue takes place between social partners. In the context of the seminar there was an exchange foreseen on state of collective bargaining in different EU countries and main characteristics of social dialogue. To make this more concrete an exchange with the HR management and the responsible person of occupational health and safety team of LafargeHolcim was organized. LafargeHolcim is the #1 global player in building materials industry. The management expressed their view on social dialogue on local level and how it proceeds social relations with the European works council on the EU level. Management also commented on its code of conduct for suppliers and outsourced companies.

Participants and management agreed that the European pillar of social rights holds an important moral value. It demonstrates the will to revalorize and revitalize social dialogue and the social aspect within the context of the European internal market. But its non-binding nature undermines immediately its potential effects. Within a context of fierce European and global competition multinational companies seek opportunities to reduce costs. Multinational companies explicitly state that they (of course) respect national and EU legislation but are less willing to be an example / leader / benchmark on social matters.

Conclusions

1/ the EU is an important economic and political actor, it should be at the forefront to promote a fair and social globalization;

2/ the European Commission should actively strengthen the legal framework and promote good practices of sectoral social dialogue and social dialogue within (multinational) companies; both on European level and on national level;

3/ the EU pillar of social rights and its 20 principles are a good framework that puts the accent again on social matters but the pillar is not very well known amongst participants and amongst the wider public. The European Commission should actively promote the European pillar of social rights;

4/ the European Commission should transform the pillar into a binding legal framework whilst at the same time taking into consideration different social models that exist in different member states;

5/ the European legislative framework on transnational information and consultation of employees (2009/38) and the directives on OH&S are still an example of social progressive legislation and the unique position of the EU on a global level;

6/ a binding legislative framework on subcontracting and outsourcing is needed putting responsibility also on the main company, taking into account amongst others the principle of equal pay for equal work, high quality jobs, full time and fix term contracts, good social protection, healthy and safe workplaces;

 

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