Unions making the difference through European Standardisation


EU Affairs

The first meeting of the High-Level Forum on European Standardisation took place on 20 January 2023. Speaking as Vice-President of the European Trade Union Confederation at the meeting which was chaired by Commissioner Thierry Breton, Oliver Roethig made the case for strengthening the involvement of unions in standard setting. Please find the contents of his interventions below:

Unions making the difference through European Standardisation

The European Trade Union Confederation very much welcomes this initiative.

European trade unions actively participate in standard setting at all levels. Standards impact work organisation and that is core trade union business. Workers are on the receiving end of standards so trade unions can bring in a real bottom-up perspective to the process.

UNI Europa is setting a standard in Europe on personal protective equipment for hairdressers – in close cooperation with the Commission, glove manufacturers,  and the hairdressing social partners based on an initiative contained in a sectoral social partner agreement.

Similarly, in the cleaning sector, it is through union engagement in the standardisation process that we protect the safety of working people. Equipment manufacturers attempted to reduce minimum stability requirements for the ladders on which cleaners have to climb. We ensure that workers safety is put first.

Union involvement in the standardisation process also made the difference for the protection of whistleblowers. Knowing that there are enforceable protections against employer retaliations can be a deciding factor for people to expose malpractice.

However, extending standardisation beyond products creates challenges when standards interfere with collective bargaining and labour law.

One illustration is the proposed international standard on “compensation systems” (ISO 30426). First put forward by Iran, it is now pushed by the Americans – a somewhat unique coalition. Our point is wage negotiations must not be replaced or even interfered with by certification bodies.

Another example is the international standard 45001 “Occupational Health and Safety Management System”, of which it is perceived that it is increasingly replacing the work of social inspection systems in Europe.  Over 370,000 certificates – paid for by the respective company – have already been issued. In short, if we have invasive standards, there is a chill effect both for regulation by law and collective bargaining.

Looking at this from a more political perspective, such standards undermine Social Europe and thus Europe’s competitive advantage to the US and China.

This leads me to a third point: the EU’s primacy principle of international standards. As long as Europe was in the driving seat, that worked. Nowadays, we see countries like China inundating the system with standardisation proposals fine-tuned to their political interests. Thus, there is a need for more scrutiny before adopting international standards at EU level.

Also, what is worrying is that foreign actors in European standardisation bodies sometimes can block a standard against local actors.

All these points are not only a question of Social Europe, but as much an issue of Europe’s competitiveness and strategic autonomy.

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