Fair working conditions: The European Pillar of Social Rights as the basis for new social partner consensus

“Fair working conditions: The European Pillar of Social Rights as the basis for new social partner consensus” - this was the title of the international conference organised by the association Arbeiter-, Freizeit- und Bildungsvereins (AFB) and the European Centre for Workers' Questions (EZA) in Nals/Nalles (Italy) on 10 and 11 May 2019. Over 70 representatives of workers’ organizations from South Tyrol/Italy, Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Poland and Serbia attended the conference. The symposium was supported by the European Union.

The "European Pillar of Social Rights " (EPSR) provides a good basis for determining how to further develop the European welfare state model as we enter the digital age. In all Member States, politicians and social partners must make a joint effort to incorporate the principles of fairness, solidarity and employee representation in the labour market of the future. This is the conclusion of the EZA Symposium where experts examined the European Pillar of Social Rights proclaimed by the European Parliament, the Council and the EU Commission in 2017. Echoing EZA’s co-President Piergiorgio Sciacqua, scholars and trade union representatives underlined the guiding role of this policy paper which is, at the same time, a commitment to a specific European social model, a mandate for reform and a list of requirements. Drawing on the values expressed in the papal encyclicals about the labour market, the EPSR confirms to be fully in line with the social commitment of EZA’s member organisations.

In 20 points, the EPSR lists all the areas in need of improvement, such as the access to the labour market, equal opportunities, fair working conditions, social protection and social inclusion. Key aspects include the establishment of the right to education, training and life-long learning, measures to support employability and social protection during career transitions.

Young people should have the right to continued education, apprenticeship, traineeship or a job offer of good standing within four months of becoming unemployed or leaving education. Also equal opportunities are considered a right.

In the section on "fair working conditions", the employers’ quest for flexibility is countered by the need to prevent precarious employment on the one hand, and the definition of formal guarantees concerning employment conditions and protection against dismissal on the other. Equally emphasized is the right to an adequate minimum wage to ensure the livelihood of workers and their families and the need to put measures in place to reconcile work and family life. The social dialogue is reaffirmed as a method for sharing the social partners’ responsibility while preserving autonomous collective bargaining practices. Finally, social protection is comprehensively discussed as encompassing childcare and the support to children, health care, unemployment and minimum income benefits to alleviate poverty, adequate rights, long-term care and housing.

Since its proclamation, the EPSR has been criticised on several occasions for lacking legal force and for recognizing employers’ call for flexibility. Indeed, there is an urgent need for action: figures obtained from trends in wages and social protection standards show that fair wages and working conditions are constantly being called into question during this period of economic upheaval in which the social partnership model has been abandoned in a more or less explicit way. Companies compete both internationally and locally and tend to secure their competitiveness by cutting labour, health and safety costs. When collective agreements are signed, opting out clauses and social dumping practices undermine existing standards of wage justice and social security. Many governments in the Member States have moved away from the practice of concerting social policy measures with the trade unions and are thus encouraging the dismantling of social rights and social protection. This, in turn, has an impact on the degree of unionisation.

Nevertheless, in the face of a deregulated labour market and a markedly neoliberal approach, the EU represents a bastion of hope for workers. This is confirmed by the history of Europe’s unification process. Since the very beginning, with the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951, the European Community has also been a social project: the focus was not only on promoting economic prosperity and cooperation, but also on "improving the living and working conditions of workers" (Art. 3 of the ECSC Treaty) by taking measures against wage dumping and ensuring transnational mobility; Member States were required to "prohibit any discrimination in pay and working conditions between domestic and immigrant workers" (Art. 69 ECSC ). At that time, the ECSC set the course to support industrialisation across national borders and to ensure adequate working conditions for the workers who moved to the new industrial districts under construction. Today we are once again faced with major changes in the economy and in the labour market. The protection standards achieved in the industrial age can be successfully adapted to the digital world of work only if corresponding regulations are agreed at European level.

The trade unions and social associations benefit from the fact that the social dimension of the EU is enshrined in the EU Treaties and has been later confirmed and expanded by directives which introduced specific safeguards. By establishing minimum standards (e.g. on working time, holidays, temporary work, equal pay for equal work, maternity protection), the EU has made a significant contribution to improving the protection of workers. This approach is supported by coordinated policy programmes for employment, equal rights and vocational training and comprehensive funding such as the ESF. The social dialogue principle is promoted by the EU at all levels to enable workers' representatives to have a say. In the light of these facts, the widespread Euroscepticism seems to be mainly due to the lack of information.

The fact that, since the EPSR was proclaimed, the EU-level agreements failed to be converted into binding legal norms or social partnership agreements shows that great resistance must be overcome.

At the EZA meeting it was concluded that the EU, with the EPSR, its legal system and its history, provides facts and arguments in the fight against the precarisation of employment contracts, the erosion of the welfare state and the repression of trade union participation. It is a matter of defending the dignity of work and workers and the ethics of the social market economy model against globalization and deregulation. Trade unions and social associations are called upon to increase pressure on the social partners and decision-makers in Brussels so that the general principles of the proclamation can be translated into binding measures. They must make themselves heard in public and communicate the EU’s successes and achievements more actively – which is also what the EU as an institution should do.