Major breakthrough in campaign to protect whistleblowers but workers still exposed

Tuesday 24 April 2018

UNI Europa welcomes the proposal from the European Commission on the protection of whistleblowers in the EU as an important step in the right direction but is concerned that workers’ rights and their working conditions has been omitted.

From LuxLeaks to Cambridge Analytica, it is individual whistleblowers who have helped to expose some of the biggest scandals in recent memory. Whistleblowers play an essential role in our democracies, shining a light on dodgy practices, and helping statutory agencies and employers to crack down on unethical behaviour. However, far too often those exposing the malpractice face negative repercussions, while those they expose escape punishment.

That the European Commission has presented a proposal at all is a breakthrough in and of itself. It was the hard work of UNI Europa affiliated trade unions, among others, who presented draft text that persuaded the European Commission it was legally possible to have a Directive on whistleblower protection. Before that the Commission had claimed there was no legal way for them to act on this matter.

Last year, UNI Europa was also pleased to see the European Parliament back trade union calls for the creation of strong protections for whistleblowers. Now, large parts of that report have been taken on board in the proposal from the Commission.

UNI Europa is satisfied that these proposals will cover a large scope of EU policy areas, from environmental and consumer protection to personal data and defending the EU’s financial interests. Other positive elements of the proposal include reversed burden of proof when whistleblowers suffer retaliation, requirement to set up reporting channels, and wider understanding of retaliation. Included is also a right to publicly disclose information, although with limitations which may need to be amended. Private companies and public bodies will be obliged to establish internal procedures under which whistleblowers could first report unethical behaviour. The ultimate purpose of the law is to ensure that systems are in place for people to expose wrongdoing when they see it without fear of negative repercussions.

However, for UNI Europa affiliated trade unions, the European Commission proposals do not go far enough because the long list of EU regulations for which whistleblowing is protected do not include labour or employment law. As it is currently written in the proposal, an employee could expose harm to animals or the environment but not to workers. The reason rights of workers is not mentioned is because the legal basis to act in this area would require the Commission to engage with the social partners. UNI Europa is calling for this anomaly to be rectified as a matter of urgency, and for the Commission to propose legislation that includes this important area of workers’ rights and their working conditions.

UNI Europa’s Professionals and Managers Group has been a key player advocating for these reforms. It was a founding member of a whistleblowers’ protection platform, set up in 2016, with Eurocadres (the European Council of Professional and Managerial Staff). The platform consists of different European and national trade union organisations and confederations, as well as NGOs, calling for EU-wide whistleblower protection. A website was set up to collect signatures and it has, to date, got the backing of 82 organisations and more than 5,100 individuals, who have signed up more than 81,000 pledges for action from the EU.

Pav Akhtar, Director of UNI Professionals and Managers’ Group, said: “We welcome this major breakthrough but will continue to work with our affiliated trade unions to call on the European Commission, Council, and member states to urgently review and amend legislation so that the public interest is protected and workers feel safe to raise concerns about wrongdoing, risk or malpractice, and harm is prevented.”

UNI Europa believes that EU-wide whistleblower protection can save lives, money and the environment. EU protection should cover all fields of horizontal competence as well as unlawful acts and wrongdoings. Any reports on wrongdoings should also be treated anonymously and efficiently. You can read our full report here.