The European Commission, one of the central governing institutions of the European Union, is starting talks with unions and employers throughout the 28 EU member states about ways to protect employees from deterioration in their work and living conditions in a working world increasingly dominated by irregular and alternative employment, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday:
The EU Commission said Wednesday that debate is needed across the 28 nations as job market changes increase the risk that people might be deprived of unemployment benefits or health insurance. It would also take account of the many families with two working parents or home help needs as well as minimum standards for maternity and paternity leave.
Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans said: “Living in the 21st Century means we need a 21st Century attitude toward life and work.” The Commission aims to establish common principles and rights on equal opportunities, job access and fair working conditions.
To that end, the commission published its final proposal for a guiding document dubbed “the European Pillar of Social Rights,” which lays out 20 principles for preserving European citizens’ rights in the 21st century economy, organized around three core themes: equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions, and social protection and inclusion. Under the theme of fair working conditions, the commission proposes a principle of “secure and adaptable employment,” which touches on the unique challenges posed by the advent of the gig economy:
Regardless of the type and duration of the employment relationship, workers have the right to fair and equal treatment regarding working conditions, access to social protection and training. The transition towards open-ended forms of employment shall be fostered. In accordance with legislation and collective agreements, the necessary flexibility for employers to adapt swiftly to changes in the economic context shall be ensured.
Innovative forms of work that ensure quality working conditions shall be fostered. Entrepreneurship and self-employment shall be encouraged. Occupational mobility shall be facilitated. Employment relationships that lead to precarious working conditions shall be prevented, including by prohibiting abuse of atypical contracts. Any probation period should be of reasonable duration.
The document also proposes a “right to adequate social protection” for both regular employees and self-employed workers “regardless of the type and duration of their employment relationship.” Other focal points of the document include gender equality, family leave, work-life balance, and access to employment and training.
Predictably, trade unions are pleased and business groups are concerned by the commission’s proposal, Harry Cooper reports at Politico:
Trade unions hailed the Social Pillar as “the EU’s last chance to create a more social Europe,” in the words of Luca Visentini, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. But BusinessEurope has condemned it, with the lobbying group’s president, Emma Marcegaglia, describing it as “ill-conceived legislation undermining job creation.” Bracing for pushback from some EU governments, the Commission said the Social Pillar “does not entail an extension of the Union’s powers.”
The Social Pillar is partly a response critics of the EU who have argued in recent years that Brussels has been too solicitous of business interests, leaving workers behind and jeopardizing public support for the European project.
A steady shift away from permanent employment in Europe in recent years is also a major factor driving discontent and economic anxiety in the union. “The EU is right to be worried” about the gig economy, BloombergView columnist Leonid Bershidsky observed in January when the European Parliament voted in favor of a report calling for better protections for contingent workers:
According to a 2016 paper by Ilaria Maselli and her collaborators, written for the Center for European Policy Studies, the share of contingent workers in the EU has risen to 32 percent in 2014 from 27.4 percent in 2002. While this has helped alleviate unemployment problems since the financial crisis, these are not the kind of jobs Europe needs.
In a February feature at the New York Times, Liz Alderman put a spotlight on the millions of young Europeans who can’t get permanent jobs and are struggling to get by on a series of temporary gigs instead:
For those stuck in this employment netherworld, life is a cycle of constant job searches. Confidence can give way to doubt as career prospects seem to fade. Young people talk of delaying marriage and families indefinitely. And though many were grateful for any workplace experience, they were also cynical about companies that treated them like disposable labor. …
The temporary-work trend is accelerating around Europe, as employers seek more flexibility to fire and hire workers, and shun permanent contracts with expensive costs and labor protections. In Spain alone, the government reported that 18 million temporary contracts were handed out last year, compared with 1.7 million long-term jobs.