Occupational health and safety – striving for happy and healthy European workplaces

Thursday 23 February 2017

This Thursday 23 February 2017, UNI Europa Policy Officer Dimitris Theodorakis is discussing occupational health and safety (OHS) with key stakeholders at a Public Policy event in Brussels.

Time to ask him a couple of questions on the role European social dialogue can play in the promotion of OHS as well as the challenges encountered when attempting to implement OHS related European social dialogue outcomes. Today’s Symposium embeds itself within the larger discussion on the effective implementation of a European OHS strategy, as part of the European strategic framework on Health and Safety at Work 2014-2020. UNI Europa sectors support the larger campaign coordinated by the ETUC and specifically advocate in favour of the ETUC’s requests on the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive.

Could you quickly explain what European Social Dialogue is?

European Social Dialogue occurs at three levels. First is the cross-industry Social Dialogue or Horizontal Social Dialogue, covering the whole of the economy and bringing together the European social partners ETUC, BUSINESSEUROPE, UEAPME and CEEP. The second level is Sectoral Social Dialogue between worker and employer representatives in 43 specific sectors of the European economy. The third level is company level Social Dialogue.

And how does it connect to Occupational Health and Safety in UNI Europa sectors?

Health and Safety at work relates to European Social Dialogue as OHS Agreements can be brought forward through both horizontal social dialogue and sectoral social dialogue.

OHS is of course a priority subject for all UNI Europa sectors. That said, some sectors are more concerned with OHS aspects as they face higher incidence of health and safety risks. One sector in which the social partners have worked intensely on OHS is hairdressing – and we have achieved a lot through bipartite sectoral social dialogue: we have succeeded in signing a European Framework Agreement with the European hairdressing employers Coiffure EU which, if implemented, would signal the capacity of sectoral social dialogues to initiate legislation at European level! However, we cannot rest on our laurels just yet – the fight is far from over.

How so?

It unfortunately is kind of a long story.

The social partners signed a first agreement on OHS in 2012. Employers and workers jointly requested the implementation of the convened agreement as foreseen by the European Treaty. What the European Commission should have done then is to start the transposition of the OHS agreement into law. Instead, the Commission keeps stalling the process of implementation under the false pretext of its REFIT and now Better Regulation agendas.

We revised the agreement in June 2016 to take on board some of the Commission’s comments. We re-submitted our joint request as foreseen by our Treaty-conferred rights and yet, the Commission continues to block it. It has even gone out of its way to render the assessment procedures even less transparent and certainly non-inclusive of the representative social partners. We regard this as a grave undermining of the social partners’ autonomy and as a double discourse when it comes to strengthening of European social dialogue.

The Commission even openly joked about hairdressers’ health and safety, calling it a small thing. We fundamentally disagree with these disparaging remarks and rolled out a campaign on the issue to highlight that ‘Better Regulation’ is actually not benefitting European workers but quite the opposite – this deregulation drive is seriously threatening and undermining workers’ health and safety and other crucial employment rights: www.notbetter.eu.

Why is this particular agreement so important for UNI Europa?

In the EU, there are just over a million workers active in the hairdressing sector, mainly young and female. The sector is characterised by a high prevalence of work-related ailments and high staff turnover due to occupational health risks among others.

Here are just a few figures: hairdressers are 10x more likely to develop skin diseases and ailments than average workers; 5x more likely to develop musculoskeletal diseases such as arthritis and tendinitis. 20% of hairdressers develop work-related asthma. Hairdressers are regularly exposed to chemicals that are likely carcinogenic.

Our agreement contains occupational health and safety measures, ergonomic measures and sets out principles of work organisation. Important elements include wearing gloves when using hazardous substances, working in correct postures to avoid musculoskeletal problems in the future, and avoiding the use of products identified as problematic and substituting those where possible.

If implemented, the social partner agreement would improve health and safety protection for over a million workers, significantly reduce costs for social security schemes and address the issue of staff turnover.

Why would the European Commission drag its feet on this for so long?

In our view, what we see here is just the tip of the iceberg. Whilst Commission President Juncker and his team like to talk about relaunching social dialogue and Social Europe, sectoral social partners witness opposing actions and a double discourse: The Commission uses ‘Better Regulation’ as an excuse to block important social legislation like this agreement.

Here is one example: during the ETUC’s Executive Committee meeting on 7 November 2016, President Juncker openly declared his opposition to the hairdressing agreement, insisting that health and safety is just “small stuff” and that our health and safety campaign is “propaganda”. He also went on about high heels, a line the Commission has been using for years and that is false. The agreement is not about high heels. These statements are disparaging and disrespectful towards the sector, the hairdressers and the social partners.

The labour movement and UNI Europa as a whole certainly view the hairdressing agreement as a test case on how serious the Commission is about Social Europe, social dialogue, the autonomy of social partners and the agreements they convene. Our message to this Commission is clear: Act for hairdressers in 2017 by forwarding this agreement to Council for its implementing decision and through this action prove to European citizens and workers that you value social dialogue. Social Europe needs to be concretely palpable and not remain mere rhetoric.

Find out more about UNI Europa’s ‘Better Regulation – it really isn’t’ campaign here

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