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22 March 2018

Benchmarking Working Europe 2018: trade unions call for tangible progress on social issues before the next European elections

On 19 March 2018, a debate – organised by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) and hosted by the Brussels-based Permanent Representation of Austria to the EU – was held to mark the publication of the 2018 Benchmarking Working Europe report. Organisations represented at this debate included the ETUI, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the European Commission and the European Parliament, and several speakers stressed the need to achieve tangible progress on social issues before the next European elections.

Maria Jepsen, Director of the ETUI’s Research Department, began by outlining the major trends identified in this new edition of Benchmarking Working Europe, the ETUI’s overview of social and economic developments in the EU which is published at the end of the first quarter of each year.

Although this year’s report corroborates last year’s encouraging findings that the EU appears to be recovering from the crisis, it also notes that this economic upswing is not good news for everyone – growth is back, but it is not fairly distributed. The minimum wage has been raised in several EU Member States over the past few months, especially in Eastern Europe, but too many countries – in both Eastern and Western Europe – have set a minimum wage which is below the poverty threshold.

The report highlights a consequent and very worrying trend, namely that work can no longer be considered an automatic guarantee against poverty, and also establishes a link between the spread of precarious jobs and the increasing proportion of Europe’s population – in particular its younger members – that falls into the category of working poor. It furthermore suggests that these developments may have been precipitated by the labour market reforms which have taken place over the past 10 years in the aftermath of the financial crisis. According to Maria Jepsen, enough is enough: “The labour market has been flexibilised to a degree that is becoming unhealthy.”

In the opinion of Patrick Develtere, Principal Adviser for European Social Policy at the European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC), the in-house think tank of the European Commission, economic and social developments must go hand in hand, but high-sounding declarations about principles will not be enough to reconnect citizens with the European project. The European Pillar of Social Rights must not remain something which is discussed only in the corridors of Brussels: “We have to go into the countries and have a debate with the social partners, with the citizens, with the media. That’s what I call the politicisation of the Social Pillar.”

The MEP Gabriele Zimmer believes that the time for talking has passed. “The citizens of Europe expect specific action,” said the Chair of the Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left. “We need public investment in social services; we need legislative initiatives, we need instruments, we need funding and new methods. We have to do a lot to strengthen the Social Pillar.”

Turning to specific examples, she suggested that the European Commission should earmark 5% of funds available under the “Juncker Plan” (the EU Infrastructure Investment Plan) for the fight against long-term unemployment, and also voiced her hope that the European Parliament’s calls for an EU-wide ban on zero-hour contracts would soon be heard.

Luca Visentini, ETUC General Secretary, similarly expressed his impatience at the lack of tangible measures delivering on the Commission’s recent undertakings in the social arena: “After a decade of austerity, the Social Pillar represents a great move in the right direction, but it must bring real improvements in EU citizens’ daily life.”

The European trade union leader also made an urgent call for action in the fight against social dumping, and suggested that wage increases, particularly in countries where workers are paid least, are an avenue which should be explored with a view to preventing European workers being pitted in competition against each other.

He cited as an example Volkswagen factories in Poland which pay their workers significantly lower wages than similar factories in Germany, despite the fact that the productivity gap between the two countries has narrowed substantially: “The same level of wages for the same level of productivity is needed across Europe.”

He expressed concern about the results of the next European elections, which are due to be held in 2019, and called for pressure to be brought to bear on the European Commission and the Member States to ensure that the social protection of workers finally moves up the scale of political priorities: “It is time to build up a large alliance to change the rules. There is a need to re-establish a strong legislative framework at EU level and, at national level, counter reforms are needed in order to restore workers’ protection.”

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