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17 May 2016

‘European pillar of social rights’? Yes, if it’s based on labour law

European pillar of social rights

On 8 March 2016 the European Commission launched a broad consultation on its project ‘European pillar of social rights’. Civil society has been invited to give its views on the minimum wage, rights to representation, health and safety, working time and many other matters related to the European Union’s social dimension. Is this initiative capable of making progress with Social Europe? Trade union and NGO officials, as well as researchers presented their first impressions on 9 May this year, at an ETUI monthly forum.

‘If this initiative is to lead to real progress in social affairs it must be combined with a rebalancing of social rights compared with economic freedoms’, said Esther Lynch after presenting the main points of the Commission’s project.

However, many signs in recent months indicate rather that the Commission is still not ready to review its programme. The Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) cited the example of legislation on health in the workplace, for which the Commission, following straight on from its programme on ‘Regulatory Fitness’, proposes the application of a variable geometry in accordance with company size.

‘Just because you work for an SME doesn’t mean that your exposure to toxic products is less risky to your health than if you work for a large enterprise’, she remarked. The union leader insisted, on the contrary, on the need to reinforce existing rights and even to extend them to new areas, especially ‘dignity at work’, a key concern for workers.

Tatiana Sachs, university lecturer on social law at the University of Nanterre/La Défense, pointed out the coexistence of antagonistic currents or schools in economics. The ‘liberal school’, which is politically the most influential at present, considers that labour law should serve the interests of the economy rather than be aimed at protecting workers.

Isabelle Schömann, senior researcher at ETUI, regretted that the Commission’s project at this stage makes so little reference to international instruments protecting workers’ rights, especially the ILO conventions.

Conny Reuter, secretary general of SOLIDAR, a European NGO platform combating social inequalities, noted that every pillar rests on foundations. ‘The European pillar of social rights cannot rest on anything other than labour law’, he warned. ‘More has to be done to ensure compliance with social and human rights, including the right to strike’, he added.

In the course of 2016 ETUI will devote other activities to the project ‘European pillar of social rights’.

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