For some years now, the European Commission has been spawning bureaucratic bodies set up to “combat bureaucracy”, or more accurately, to rid public policies of what annoys employers. One of the most recent is a “High Level Group” set up in August 2007 supposedly to represent independent stakeholders. It consists largely of representatives of business interests. Of the fifteen members, only one represents labour. The group is chaired by Mr Edmund Stoiber, a former premier of Bavaria. Mr Stoiber is a politician on the Christian right, and no big fan of European integration. One of his most celebrated campaigns on Europe run in early 2000 challenged the Czech Republic’s future membership due to the historical dispute over the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans in 1945.

The Stoiber group has a three-year mandate, but all the evidence suggests that some of its members would like to see it become a more permanent body. The group’s composition ensures that the most hard-line deregulationist views have an automatic majority.

The Stoiber group is involved in a DG Enterprise-sponsored online consultation to collect employers’ proposals for a revision of Community rules. An examination of these proposals gives some inkling of how opposed business is to the harmonization of living and working conditions within the EU. The very basis of the consultation is biased, offering no scope for defending any of the existing rules or arguing for them to be strengthened. All that is wanted are proposals to reduce the “burden on business”.

In January 2009, the Stoiber group adopted an opinion on some of these proposals. It was the group’s first pronouncement on health and safety at work. A look at the opinion gives a flavour of the ultra-freemarket, deregulationist thinking that drives most of the group’s members.

The group expresses support for the Commission proposals to revise the Working Time Directive by lowering the standards, and argues that they do not go far enough. They should be regarded only as a start towards other moves to further deregulate

working time. This position could hardly be more challenging a bare month after the European Parliament threw out a large part of the Commission’s proposals and proposed a revision of the Working Time Directive more consistent with workers’ health and safety. It is plain to see, therefore, that the group is taking positions that far exceed its remit limited to administrative burdens, and is trying to lean on the Community legislator.

The same conclusion applies to REACH, the EU’s new chemicals regulation. REACH’s general approach is that the obligations are adjustable on the basis of two criteria: the annual production volume of chemicals per producer or importer, and the level of danger associated with certain chemicals (e.g., those that are carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxins). The provisions eventually adopted underwent six years’ intensive discussions and reflect a political balancing act between the Parliament, Council and Commission. The Stoiber group wants to call this REACH approach into question by adding a criterion related to company size. It is a proposal that throws into question the fundamental policy thrust of the regulation, because whether a chemical is produced or imported by a small or medium-sized business makes no difference to its intrinsic dangers. An SME can perfectly well produce a carcinogen! Likewise, there is no automatic link between production or import volume and company size. An SME may very well be a high-volume importer of chemicals. To adjust the REACH obligations by company size would inevitably undermine the protection of workers’ and public health and the environment.

When it comes to road transport, the Stoiber group wants to limit the use of digital tachographs which enable much more effective checks to be kept on truckers’ driving times and rest periods than the old analog tachographs. Here again, the group calls for adaptations or exemptions that would make allowance for firm size, even though there is clearly no connection between risks of excessively long driving times and haulage company size from the angle of truck drivers’ health and safety and the safety of other road users. 

Special report - Discounting the workers: conditions in the retail sector

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