Boosting the social policy rights of EU citizens is possible

FEPS
The Foundation for European Progressive Studies

The Treaty of Rome (1957) has few articles that deal with European social policy. Nevertheless, there has, over time, been progress in terms of social policy. The proclamation of a basic core of European social rights at the Gothenburg summit of EU leaders in 2017, 60 years later, is a significant social policy milestone for the Union. Beyond the proclamation itself, this political process is particularly important for initiatives that are yet to come to fruition in 2018 but are in the policymaking pipeline.

 

This is a landmark moment for Europe. Our Union has always been a social project at heart. It is more than just a single market, more than money, more than the euro. It is about our values and the way we want to live,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the Gothenburg summit.

The European Parliament “emphasises that the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) should equip people living in the EU with stronger means of keeping control over their lives, enabling them to live a dignified life and realise their aspirations by mitigating various social risks arising over the course of their entire life and empowering people to participate fully in society and be able to adapt to frequent techno- logical and economic changes” (European Parliament, Report on the European Pillar of Social Rights, 20.12.2016, page 13).

During the Gothenburg summit, leaders from across the European Union agreed on a European Pillar of Social Rights.

In the official declaration, EU leaders committed to a set of 20 principles and rights aimed at giving social rights across the EU a boost, especially in countries where social policy standards are lower. Among the rights protected: the right to fair wages and to health care; to lifelong learning and minimum income; a better work-life balance and gender equality.

The European Pillar of Social Rights is about delivering new and more effective rights for citizens. Its three main categories are:

• Equal opportunities and access to the labour market

• Fair working conditions

• Social protection and inclusion

Moving on from the Gothenburg summit, the key overriding question is how these principles are being translated into specific legislation or other initiatives that will help EU citizens exercise their rights in this area concretely. Ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections, the progressive family will design a Social Action Plan to ensure that the Social Pillar has real bite.

Here is a detailed look at five social policy initiatives that are currently in progress.

1. The ‘New Start’ initiative: work/ private life balance for parents

Context: In 2015, the employment rate for women (aged between 20 and 64 years old) came to 64.3% whilst for men, the figure came to 75.9%. The average employment rate for women with a child under 6 years of age during 2015 was nearly 9 percent lower than for childless women , and in several countries this difference was greater than 30%.

Concrete proposals:

• The introduction of paternity leave

• The introduction of caregiver’s leave for workers caring for severely ill or dependent parents

• The extension of the right to apply for flexible work to apply to all parents with children under the age of 13 and caregivers caring for dependent relatives

Benefits: parents and caregivers benefit from a work-family balance that is better adapted to the needs of today’s families, an increase in women’s employment, higher incomes and career progression. This would have a positive impact on their economic prosperity, their social inclusion and their health.

It remains to be seen whether this new directive will be considerably more ambitious than the previous proposal (Directive 92/85/EEC) or whether there will be any real steps towards improving the safety and health of workers on maternity leave. For example, there is currently no European legislation which pro- vides for paternity leave or leave to take care of a sick or dependent parent in circumstances where there is no force majeure event.

2.Clarification of the Working Time Directive

Context: Digitisation has led to a growing fragmentation of work, both in terms of place and time. About 30% of people in employment work in several different places, but only 3% of people work remotely from home. At the same time, digital technology is paving the way for new opportunities to monitor working hours and companies are using new arrangements to meet their specific needs.

Proposal: One of the concrete proposals is that the working week be capped at 48 hours. The objective is intended to protect the health and safety of workers by establishing requirements for working time to be structured in such a way as to respect a balance between work and family life. It is important to note that the Working Time Directive, as is the case with all EU directives, is binding on all Member States, but that the actual provisions must be transposed into national law.

3. The directive relating to the written declaration: transparent and foreseeable working conditions

Context: The basic core of European social rights have been affirmed to ensure that employment law retains its relevance and continues to positively affect the labour markets of the 21st century. The objective is to introduce new rights for workers.

Proposals:

• Workers to receive detailed information regarding their work on or before the first day of work (and in any event no later than two months after the commencement of the work in question)

• Limited trial periods to be conducted upon commencement of work

• Additional employment to be allowed by prohibiting exclusivity clauses and by limiting contradictory clauses

• Workers to be informed within a reasonable time when the work will take place in cases where the work schedule is varied and determined by the employer, as is the case for work on demand (when requested)

• Workers to receive a written response to a transfer request where a request has been made to transfer to a safer position

• Workers to receive all required training from the employer free of charge

The directive has two main objectives: increased employee protection against possible violation of their rights and greater transparency in the labour market by ensuring that working conditions applicable to a specific category of employees can be identified easily.

The proposed increase in transparency is useful not only to employees but also to public authorities (in their efforts to reduce undeclared work), as well as other employers and potential investors who may require legal certainty regarding current working conditions.

4. Legislative proposal: A European Labour Authority

Context: Today, there are 16 million Europeans working in another EU Member State, twice as many as there were ten years ago. Moreover, according to figures produced by the Commission, 1.7 million Europeans cross a border every day to get to work.

Proposal: This Authority could be particularly important in the management of posted workers. Although they are limited in number, they continue to be a source of tension between citizens of different countries. The aim of this Authority is not to replace national labour agencies but rather to ensure better coordination between national agencies and to guarantee the application of labour laws, a weakness which has been a source of tension in the past.

It remains to be seen whether this authority will be empowered to make decisions in cases when it is apparent that a company or national authority has failed to apply the laws correctly.

5. Consultation: Access to social protection

Context: Today, people belonging to all categories of self-employed work account for 15% of the workforce across EU Member States and people in all categories of atypical employment account for a further 20 to 25%.

Proposal: Guarantee universal access to essential health services and basic social security to protect all European workers.

At present, people who work atypically or for themselves, even if they do not pay social contributions still retain access to basic social provisions.

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