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22 October 2018

New EU Directive crucial for protecting vulnerable workers

The relentless rise of precarious employment in Europe is one of the challenges that the European trade union movement is trying to deal with at the European level. Various new forms of employment currently fall outside of the scope of protection offered by labour law, as they tend to blur the boundaries between the concepts of ‘worker’ and ‘self-employed’.

The current Written Statement directive, which has existed since 1991 and gives employees starting a new job the right to be notified in writing of the essential aspects of their employment relationship is being found not sufficiently adequate anymore and is in the process of being revised. In the framework of the current discussions on the new Directive, the ETUC, the ETUI, the Brussels Offices of the Austrian Trade Union Federation and the Austrian Federal Chamber of Labour have co-organised an evening debate on the issue. The event took place on 16 October at the Permanent representation of Austria to the EU.   

The President of the Austrian Chamber of Labour Renate Anderl and ETUI General director Philippe Pochet welcomed the participants at this well-attended event. Renate Anderl regretted the lack of a social dimension in the program of the Austrian EU presidency and blamed the Commission of having put too much the focus on flexibility of workers in the past so that now, the consequences of this policy are visible with the growing number of new forms of employment. Philippe Pochet underlined the timeliness of the publication of the report “The concept of ‘worker’ in EU law: status quo and potential for change” by Martin Risak and Thomas Dullinger which resonates the EU level discussion now.

Martin Risak, Labour Law Professor from the University of Vienna, presented the report, arguing that a more extensive definition of “worker” is needed, to include the economic dependency of the workers on their contractual partners. Until now the concept of worker has always been approached in the context of the fundamental freedom of movement for workers but the protection side of labour law should also be integrated.

Aline Hoffmann, Head of the ETUI Europeanisation of Industrial Relations Unit, opened the discussion with well-articulated questions to the different panelists. Enrique Calvet Chambon, Member of the European Parliament and rapporteur on the proposal for a new Directive, saw the core of this revision in demonstrating that the EU matters and protects its citizens working in new forms of labour relations. The problem, according to him, comes from the principle of subsidiarity which is being advanced in order to block a common European definition of worker. If every member state is to have their own definition, then “why bother having a Directive”, he asked.

Esther Lynch, the ETUC Confederal Secretary in charge of the topic, agreed that the watered-down Directive proposal is not ideal, but it is “good enough legislation which proofs that the EU will have protected its workers” if the proposal is approved. “We can’t lose it because it protects those who mostly need it, there is a lot of hope pinned on this piece of legislation”, she said. What is more, “it would demonstrate that the European Pillar of Social Rights can be made real”.

Josef Muchitsch, the Federal Chairman of the Austrian Construction and Wood Workers Union, said that precision in the wording is very important to avoid the creation of a playing field for exploitation of workers. In Austria precarious forms of work were legally possible via the trade and industrial law but the trade unions managed to stop this widely spread way of working in the construction sector.

According to Martin Risak it all came down to the question whether we want precarious work to a certain extent in our society. He sees two narratives – one referring to the new economy, and another one – to the notion of freedom. In the first one the old rules do not apply and that is tackled by this Directive. In the second one, self-employment is being associated with freedom and this perception is very hard to break. In this respect, it is important to acknowledge that bargaining powers are not always equal on both sides in different countries. The issue of enforcement is explicitly mentioned in the Directive which is innovative and a large step forward.

In conclusion, Esther Lynch said that if the EU countries would stop giving tax and social security incentives for companies employing workers precariously, and would rather encourage companies that live up to their responsibilities, via public procurement rules a ‘social licence’, they would give people reasons to vote for the left instead of the populists.

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