What to look for in the European Pillar of Social Rights

Thursday 19 January 2017

On 23 January, UNI Europa will take part in a high level conference on the European Pillar of Social Rights, organised by the European Commission, just a few days after the European Parliament plenary adopted a report on the European Pillar of Social Rights with strong proposals to strengthen social rights in the EU

UNI Europa Regional Secretary Oliver Roethig explains the crucial points which need to feature in the European Pillar of Social Rights.

What is the European Pillar of Social Rights?

The European Commission announced its work on a European Pillar of Social Rights almost a year ago. The Pillar is supposed to be a set of principles to address the challenges and improve rights and protections in the field of employment and social policies. Following the Commission’s vision, these should then guide EU policies in a number of areas to ensure well-functioning and fair labour markets and welfare systems. UNI Europa has been working to influence the process and ensure the Pillar takes due account of services workers – the European Commission has a lot of ground to gain on Social Europe, that’s for sure.

Would you say the European Commission hasn’t delivered on its promises so far?

No, it hasn’t. Two years ago, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he wanted the EU to achieve a “social AAA” rating. But now, halfway through the Commission’s term, the European social rating still has junk status. The Commission might talk the talk – but its actions go in altogether another direction.

Where do you see that in particular?

Here are two examples: The promise to find a balance between flexibility for companies and worker protection has been broken, creating an overwhelming impression of an EU that only acts in the interests of big business. Workers find it hard to believe that Europe will live up to its social commitments at a time when they desperately need jobs and job security, well-defined rights and a fair standard of living.

Also, when you look at the Commission’s 2017 Work Programme, you will quickly realise that labour issues are treated as secondary, “small” things and that despite “relaunching” social dialogue in 2015, there is still a lack commitment to the role of the social partners. The key example is the social partners’ agreement on health and safety in the hairdressing sector where the Commission has been stalling legislation since 2012.

And what does that mean for European workers?

Well, I think we have two dangers here really – workers and citizens not benefitting from a Social Europe that was promised to them, but also in a next step a threat to the European project as a whole. If citizens, their concerns, needs and fears are constantly neglected, we shouldn’t be surprised if they stop believing in the European Union and its promises. The rise of populism and far-right parties is just one of the effects we can already see.

What then could the European Pillar of Social Rights do to change that course?

The European Pillar of Social Rights has the potential to get Europe back on track, but only if it provides a credible promise of hope for working people. That means the Social Pillar must be strong, robust and solid enough to support the building that is the European Union – what we don’t need is a feeble pillar that crumbles at first contact with the challenges the EU is facing. Indeed, the Juncker Commission has been chipping away at workers’ rights already guaranteed by the EU – just remember the EU interventions which wrecked sectoral collective bargaining in Greece, Spain and other countries.

Our joint ambition must be for working life once again to provide a positive and predictable future, based on fairness, progress and social safety. We need a broad and large working class that is not in a precarious working and living situation. We need a Europe where social and employment rights take precedence over unrestricted capital, where the labour market is fit for purpose for workers, not just for companies.

How could the European Pillar of Social Rights help bring this forward?

The Pillar must result in a real and comprehensive EU social action programme, bringing together legislation, policymaking mechanisms and financial resources. And it must address the importance of the services sector, which is at the core of European societies and economies. A bold EU initiative for a digital single labour market is needed to addresses the social and labour dimension of digitalisation and stop the increase in precarious work.

The two most important elements UNI Europa will be looking for in the European Pillar of Social Rights will be whether it promotes trade union and collective bargaining rights, at the EU and national levels as well as within multinational companies, and if it proactively addresses the labour dimension of digitalisation in order to guarantee a just transition for workers and ensure that they are not being played against each other by unscrupulous employers.

What the Juncker Commission is currently working on is simply not good enough. We’ve had enough of window dressing; we’ve had enough of a Commission that stands idly by, or worse, even paves the way for business to exploit workers. We need a Commission that will take action now to put the wellbeing of workers and citizens first, not the profits of the top 1%.

The European Commission is expected to publish a White Paper on the European Pillar of Social Rights in March

Read a joint press release published with the ETUC here

Read an opinion piece by Oliver Roethig on the European Pillar of Social Rights, published on Euractiv, here

Read the UNI Europa response to the EU public consultation on the European Pillar of Social Rights here