European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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3 April 2012

Working conditions in Europe: mounting inequalities

Working conditions are deteriorating in Europe, helping to reinforce social inequalities between workers, in particular in terms of health. Such is the conclusion drawn at the end of a two-day seminar staged in late March in Brussels by the ETUI. This event, originally intended for the research community, attracted a far wider audience of some 170 participants: proof that even at a time of economic crisis, the question of working conditions remains more than ever a major social issue.

Despite the fall in industrial employment over the past twenty years, physical risks (noise, vibrations, extreme temperatures, exposure to dust, etc.) are not decreasing, and still affect over 20 % of workers in Europe, according to the 2010 European working conditions survey.

The first results of a French survey indicate that this intensification of work is being accompanied by workers’ dissatisfaction with the conditions under which they carry out their work, with more and more workers complaining of not having enough time to do their work properly. The impact of psychosocial factors on the way in which workers perceive their health is equally explored in Belgian research which indicates that only one third of workers performing emotionally demanding work feel that they will still be able to do this work by the time they reach the age of 60.

The deterioration in working conditions has a bigger impact on workers in companies low down in the value chain and more vulnerable and marginal workers in the productive process, according to research on young workers in Italy. Among these workers aged under 35, blue-collar workers with a lower level of education are more likely to suffer physical and psychological health problems than white-collar workers. A Spanish study drives the point home: the risk of poor mental health is close to 90 % among immigrant manual workers aged under 31.

There is also a gender element that combines with the inequalities determined by a worker’s status, type of contract and employer: almost one third of female workers in Europe work over 70 hours per week if their paid work is added on to their domestic tasks.

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