Policy responses, recovery plans and innovative trade union practices to tackle the social and employment challenges the labour market faces

From 23 to 25 June 2021 took place in Sofia, Bulgaria, a seminar about “Policy responses, recovery plans and innovative trade union practices to tackle the social and employment challenges the labour market faces”, organized by the Confederation of Labour PODKREPA, with the support of EZA and of the European Union.

48 representatives of workers’ organisations from Bulgaria, Germany, France, Romania, Poland and Belgium participated in the seminar that was organized as a hybrid seminar.

The seminar’s objective

-To provide an opportunity for exchange on the future of industrial relations after the pandemic and on the necessary improvement of trade unions policies in support of working people.

-Make an analysis of the current state of the trade unions’ involvement in the design of the national recovery plans and sum-up proposals to preserve incomes’ level and jobs, to guarantee adequate social protection and to secure a safe return to workplace.

-To draw the attention to the situation and to discuss measures targeted to better protect people in precarious working conditions, namely those in non-standard forms of employment: platform, part-time, zero-hours and low-paid workers.

-To look in a wider perspective for innovative trade union’s response to strengthen the EU social dimension by promoting a new culture of responsibility, commitment, respect and dignity to value working people.

-To identify main challenges with regard to improve the role of workers organization in policy’s making and implementation.

Description of the seminar

The event has started with key-note messages on the role of the trade unions and social partners to guarantee an inclusive recovery that leaves no one behind. 

This political opening was followed by one module with two experts’ interventions, introducing the main topic of the conference, namely the EU Recovery and Resilience Plan and on the necessity to introduce a more social and people-centered agenda in all post-pandemic policies.

According to the program, work continues with:

- more detailed presentations on two specific topics: first – on the current development of social dialogue in Bulgaria and the second – on gender dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic

- two modules with national interventions from participating organizations on the trade union agenda and policy inputs to achieve strong social dimension of the post pandemic recovery

- one panel discussion: Key challenges and lessons learnt from the crisis for grassroots trade union organizations, which practically summarized the exchange, made on the first conference’s day.

On the next day the program was organized with two panels for exchange and discussions and one closing session, as follows:

- Think-tank round table: Solidarity – the linking EU instrument: First lesson from the crisis: we need more solidarity within societies and solidarity among society;

- Brainstorming session: A broader concept of ‘worker – how to protect workers outside the conventional employment. (Platform, temporary and part-time);

- Wrap-up module: Time to change: strategic discussion to design the right trade union policies with the adequate means to achieve the ambitious objectives of a fair and sustainable recovery.

- Summary and conclusion

Key ideas

With regard to reconnect the concept of democracy and solidarity with the every day life and the aspirations of working people trade unions have to push for radical changes in the EU economic model - moving from economy that serves profits to a social market economy, that benefits people, that build wellbeing and better opportunities, equality and inclusion for all.

To shape the post pandemic recovery, trade unions must shift their policies, focusing on the delivering of a more concrete content and of meaningful outcome to people, especially to young workers and to those in the new forms of employment. 

To do that, trade unions should be more active, more dynamic and to listen carefully to every of their member. In addition, they must carry-out realistic proposals and activities, reflecting the concerns of working people, ranging from raising pay through ensuring the respect of the right to collective bargaining to a climate transition that’ s fair to workers in affected industries.

A need for trade union’s mobilization is obvious - results from negotiations, social dialogue’s outcomes, as well any legislative proposals & measures must be visible and directly linked to the reality of workers, responding to problems, faced at work.

The Covid-19 crisis has made more visible the importance of social dialogue, as a key to ensuring safe return to work. Logically, recovery plans at the national level or every kind of legal initiative on employment must be consulted and implement with social partners. Without having a culture for dialogue, without active policies that deliver to people, without having a social dimension, any recovery will fail.

In that sense, trade unions priorities should be focused on two dynamics – on the recovery from the pandemic and to take a step forwards green and ecological economy, shaping the immense transformation of the structure of employment that’s already underway. Here, trade union proposals for a strategic framework for the new forms of work and for health and safety at work are a must.

TUs studies are registering an unprecedented rise in inequality and precarity at work. In that respect:

-national governments must continue to support the employment retention measures (wage subsidies) and the measures to help enterprises to survive the crisis (deferral of social security and pension contributions, debt payment moratorium).

- tailored responses should be adopted for specific sectors which were affected differently by the pandemic (tourism, accommodation and food services; retail) and for specific categories of workers whose working conditions worsened during the pandemic (workers in the informal economy, casual workers).

- there is a necessity to accelerate the progress in building universal social protection systems, including the social protection floors. Social protection policies cannot be dissociated from the new forms of employment and have to be integrated in a new social protection mechanism

- to have innovative trade union policies means to move towards an organizing culture, particularly aimed at non-organized employees- to young, digital and precarious workers. In addition – that means to start the digital transformation of trade unions – providing new kind of online services and using actively the modern communication tools for regular and direct connection with members.

Conclusions and recommendations

The future of the EU depends of our ability as social actors to commit to radical renewal and to intensify our efforts to caring policies to deliver to ordinary people. Trade unions’ mission is to take this way forwards, towards a new pact of development, in a vision for social progress.

The pandemic forced us to see our democratic system in the EU with different eyes – after a decade of dismantling employment supporting and healthcare systems, of decentralizing wage bargaining and shrinking public spending for social need the divide between the EU and its citizens is obvious. The confidence in EU and its core values must be restored urgently and full mobilization of trade unions and civil society is the tool to make the European recovery and resilience Plan a turning point towards fair and human-orientated policies. 

To be effectively involved actively in a fair and sustainable recovery, is extremely important that trade unions succeed:

- to master the challenges of remote, platform work and of the various forms of short-term employment

- to support an action plan for “full implementation” of the European Pillar of Social Right

- to implement a strategic framework for health and safety at work

- to succeed to combat violence against women and the discrimination at workplace

- to cope with the challenges of climate change and digitalisation

- to innovate the collective bargaining strategy and to foster capacity-building at workplace and sectorial level

- to reform social protection system to cover the various social risk

- to become far more professional in the public presentation of their policies and positions

- to start a digital transformations of trade unions’ activities.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the instability of EU democratic system and deepened the divide between institutions and citizens. For this reason, more and more citizens, including the majority of workers, are expressing distrust in democracy. Here is our role, because trade unions know very well how to achieve acceptable solutions based on dialogue, negotiation and consultation. Now is the time to take our responsibility as trade unionists, to take on our role at the workplace and at sectorial level, as well in society as trustful bridge-builders, to allow a fairer society to be built, which will make health its priority - health at work, health in life, health of our democracies. This is our unique opportunity for TUs to become active participants, offering innovative policies that realistically improve the situation of working people. Policies that are transparent, social and fair for all. Because the majority of the problems, we are facing right now, are caused by the fact that we have posed consumption and profit before the human being and his spiritual life. Certainly, natural hierarchy is opposite - therefore the natural hierarchy must be restored. This can only happen when we put the person at the center of the overall perspective. In fact, that pandemic obliged us to take our responsibility as trade unionists. In that sense the solidarity demand shared responsibility, readiness to reform and commitment to make that every person in Europe can fully enjoy fundamental rights, social and labour rights, without discrimination based on gender, age, ethnicity and migration background, religion, belief or political orientation.

Making the European recovery a success story with and for all citizens will require a broad-based alliance bringing civil society, the economy, science and trade unions on board. EU need people from every walk of life to be represented at the negotiating tables. Trade unions are genuine part of the necessary political response, enriching it solidarity and social dimension and contributing to the sustainability of its implementation