Is the EU a Guarantor of Workers’ Rights?

 


In the autumn of 1988 Jacques Delors, the then President of the European Commission, addressed the British Trade Union Congress, promising that the Commission would be a force to require governments to introduce pro-labour legislation. Delors also at that time attempted to influence the trade union movements in Denmark and Ireland to the effect that “Social Europe” was a reality they should support.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded with her infamous “Bruges Speech” on September 20, 1988, in which she said that she had not “rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed by a Brussels superstate”. In so doing, she was asserting the interests of British monopoly capital to impose its will in an unfettered manner not only in Britain but globally, and demonstrating that there were not only common interests throughout international finance capital but also the most cut-throat contention.

In these circumstances, the ETUC (European TUC) offered “partnership” with the monopolies as a trade-off for survival agreeing discussions with the “Round Table of Industrialists” to limit class struggle and agreeing support for the European Union.

Various protocols of the “Social Chapter” and “Social Charter” were drawn up along with the various ideas of “limiting working time” and later produced directives. The aim here was to make the European monopolies the most competitive in the global market and encourage the workers of the EU states to get behind these aims in contention with the US and other blocs. It was also a time when there was euphoria among the ruling circles that the workers’ movement with its independent programme and thinking was finished, and the end of history had come with the triumph of neo-liberalism. The EU became the embodiment of that euphoria on a Europe-wide scale. It seems a far cry from the problems that are today racking the EU, the contradictions between “old” and “new” Europe, and the self-created threats to the very existence of the EU as an entity.


The issue really is that the workers’ movement should not get embroiled in these dog-fights of the monopolies but should develop their own independent programme, the alternative. In this connection, it cannot be said that workers’ rights are given by the EU or guaranteed by its legislation. This is first of all untrue on a theoretical and political level. Workers’ rights are inalienable and belong to them by virtue of their concrete conditions of existence, of their being. The struggle of the workers’ movement has been and is to provide these rights with a guarantee. But on a practical level, it is at best questionable that the EU directives have done so.

It is said that workers’ rights in the UK are “underpinned by EU rules”. This could be called a fraud. The same EU promulgates rules and directives that enforce the neo-liberal agenda of privatisation, capitalist competition, dictate of the monopolies and scrapping of regulations that safeguard the rights of all. The question can be asked, for example: is remaining within the EU going to nullify the Trade Union Bill? Where is the guarantee of workers’ rights here? It is true that, as TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said only recently: “[Workers’] rights can’t be taken for granted.” But what must be recognised is that is the case with or without the EU. It is extremely myopic to ignore the destruction of the manufacturing base, the destruction of jobs, the shackling of workers’ ability to resist the anti-social offensive, the dismantling of public services, and then claim that the EU is the guarantor of the “workers’ hard-won benefits and protections”, in Frances O’Grady’s words.

There are many workers across the EU who are having to live with the attacks on hard won, hard fought for paid leave, many workers on zero hour contracts and temporary contracts. Many have reduced leave and many witness the discrepancies across the EU. There have been no “guarantees” with discrepancies even across industries with discrimination still operating against women who become pregnant and whose employment or conditions or progression is threatened. Male parental concessions are not equally distributed in firms across the country and other European countries. Part-time workers are in no-way in a state of equal treatment.

The right to not be forced to work longer than 48 hours a week on average is regularly challenged in wage negotiations by employers, with forced overtime and lack of premium pay. The Junior Doctors are the obvious case in point today and the British government, with no such protection available or invoked, directly enforces their conditions and contracts.

Eighteen weeks’ parental leave per child and to time off for urgent family reasons simply does not exist for many workers or is made difficult or unavailable to claim.

The right to equal pay for work of equal value between men and women is nonsense in many circumstances. Job descriptions, job evaluations and benchmarks are unrealistic or uncategorised in many circumstances. Hard fought for women’s equality amongst production workers, gained by milestone struggles such as by Ford women workers, has still not got the recognition of establishing new criteria to measure equal pay even though established outside of the EU.

The battle for the right to equal treatment for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers with other employees is still an ongoing struggle.

The right for workers’ representatives to be informed and consulted on significant changes that could affect jobs, changes in contracts of employment is still arbitrarily implemented and not conformed with in many consultations.

The right to high standards of health and safety at work have seriously been undermined in recent years leading to increased accidents and industrial injury reported in the press on a daily basis.

There are still no protections for workers affected by outsourcing or business buy-outs. Even when labour is supposed to be “tuped” across (Transfer of Undertakings ; Protection of Employment Regulations, 1981) at local authority level when services are outsourced along with jobs, it is undermined or not carried out.

To intimate that protections from discrimination in the workplace on grounds of sexual orientation, gender reassignment, age, and religion or belief is an EU prerogative is totally misleading and to indicate that it will not persist in or out of the EU or would be weaker is erroneous.

WWIE calls on the working class movement to examine the preconceptions promoted about the EU and workers’ rights, and to reject the illusions being created that the European Union is there for the benefit of the working class, which is a cruel joke being played on working people. In actual fact, the ruling elite is in such crisis in part precisely because it does not recognise workers’ rights, and this is playing havoc with the economy, and is creating problems for the EU states that they had not foreseen nor can deal with. The power of the working class has always been in their own organisation and numbers. This remains true today, and it is these factors which are crucial in being brought to bear in the struggle against the anti-social austerity agenda and for the guarantee of the rights of the workers.

For Your Information:

Collective Bargaining in Europe

The 2013 publication “Reconstruction after the crisis: a manifesto for collective bargaining” by K D Ewing and John Hendy QC, published by The Institute of Employment Rights, carries a chapter “Collective Bargaining in Europe”.

Keith Ewing is Professor of Public Law at King’s College London. He is President of the Institute of Employment Rights and Legal editor of the journal International Union Rights. He is also a Vice President of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom. John Hendy is a QC specialising in trade union law at Old Square Chambers. He is Chair of the Institute of Employment Rights, President of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights and a Vice President of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.

The authors point out in this chapter that it can be said that “there are two ‘Europes’: the first is the Europe of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights; and the other is the Europe of the European Union and the European Court of Justice”. They say that it is one of the great tragedies of the modern era that while the Council of Europe is moving, via the European Court of Human Rights, to strengthen the right to collective bargaining, the European Union is moving just as quickly to dismantle it in many of the different states of the Union. They say: “As a result, collective bargaining coverage in much of the EU is in decline, and although not as low as in the United Kingdom, the collapse to British levels cannot be ruled out as institutions and structures are dismantled. This is no coincidence, with the decline in collective bargaining coverage now being carefully orchestrated from Brussels by the European Commission.”

Ewing and Hendy point out that on average across the EU, 62% of workers remain covered by collective bargaining. However, the UK, with 23% of workers covered, is second to bottom with only Lithuania (15%) below it. Industry-wide bargaining has largely disappeared, at least in the private sector, and bargaining occurs at company level if it occurs at all.

In detailing the attack on collective bargaining, the authors write: “The Troika [the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission (EC), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)] sees radical decentralisation as the blueprint for reconstructing collective bargaining systems in Europe.” The word “reconstructing” in this context could be read as “deconstructing”. The authors cite the examples of the termination or abolition of national level collective agreements; the extension of the scope for workplace derogation from industry-level collective agreements; the introduction of more stringent preconditions for extending collective agreements by legislative means to non-signatory employers; and finally the dismantlement of the trade union monopoly over negotiating on terms and conditions and the granting of scope for non-union employee organisations and employee groups to conclude workplace collective agreements.

Ewing and Hendy describe these as “a sustained attack”. They say: “The crisis in the Eurozone has plainly provided an opportunity for many of these developments to be driven through.” They point to the Posted Workers’ Directive (which is a 1996 EU directive concerned with the free movement of labour within the EU) and litigation allowing contractors to undercut collective agreements in the name of business freedom. They write: “It now became impossible for trade unions in Member States to protect collective bargaining arrangements and to protect collective agreements from being undercut by contractors posting workers from countries with lower wages. Nor could Member States insist that contractors complied with collective agreements.”

Secondly, there has been the impact of austerity with the dismantling of collective bargaining structures now demanded by the Troika. “The demands of the Troika cannot be under-estimated,” Ewing and Hendy write. “They trample on the constitutional guarantees of countries like Greece and Portugal, with the constitution in the case of Greece providing that ‘General working conditions shall be determined by law, supplemented by collective labour agreements contracted through free negotiations and, in case of the failure of such, by rules determined by arbitration’.”

Thirdly, the authors point to growing pressure from within the European Commission for a growing decentralisation of collective bargaining from the level of the sector to the level of the enterprise. “This appears to be a demand for a dilution in the role of trade unionism and collective bargaining,” they say. The authors continue: “It also appears to mark the eclipse of the idea of ‘Social Europe’ and the triumph – at least for the time being – within the corridors of Brussels of neo-liberal ideology at the expense of the social democratic ideology of an earlier generation of politicians.”

Fourthly, Ewing and Hendy point out, there is a new threat on the horizon in the shape of TTIP, which “could have a potentially devastating impact on collective bargaining arrangements in Europe”. They stress that the US has not ratified either of the freedom of association conventions and now has collective bargaining density of 7% in the private sector. They conclude: “In the absence of any likely levelling up by the USA, the most likely consequence of the free trade agreement for freedom of association will be the levelling down by EU member states, with more pressure from employers to adopt US practices with US levels of bargaining coverage.” It is, they say, a grim prospect.

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