Gothenburg – hot air or a real deal?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Protest march demonstration by major Italian trade unions on the occasion of an industrial action in Turin, Italy, in May 2016. [Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock]

Hats off to the Swedish Government for proposing the EU social summit that takes place on Friday, writes Esther Lynch.

Esther Lynch is the Confederal Secretary, European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

A social democratic Government, led by former trade union leader Stefan Löfven, has brought EU leaders together to discuss ‘fair jobs and growth’, a topic that many feel has been too long neglected by an EU more concerned with fiscal rules than the well-being of working people.

And there is something worthwhile to discuss: President Juncker’s ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’ which is supposed to be adopted at the summit. The Pillar is made up of 20 commitments and rights including the right to “the right to fair wages”, the right to a high level of protection of health and safety at work and “the right to adequate social protection”.

One of the most innovative features is the commitment to prevent ‘employment relationships that lead to precarious working conditions’, widely understood as meaning that zero-hour type arrangements will be prohibited.

Time is running out and EU leaders absolutely must adopt the Social Pillar at the end of this week. If they do not, there will not be time before the European elections in May 2019 for the current Parliament and Commission to do anything substantial about implementing it. President Juncker’s promise of a triple-A Social Europe would be in tatters if the Social Pillar is not adopted in Gothenburg.

And that is the big test. Is the social pillar all hot air and nice intentions, as some fear, or will working people actually feel a benefit to their lives? European trade unions are determined to ensure that the EU delivers real benefits to working people. To do so, the EU has to get on with it: not just Commissioners and MEPs, but also Ministers and member states.

Trade unions – through the European Trade Union Confederation – are not simply calling vaguely for the EU to ‘do something’, but have a series of jointly-agreed proposals for what the EU should do.

The European Commission should publish an ‘Action Plan’ for implementation’ with concrete actions and commitments for enforcing each of the 20 principles and rights.

Investment to make the rights real: using EU funds to help pay for implementation of the Social Pillar.

New EU laws to enforce the rights, such as Directives on

  • a strengthening of the Equal Pay Directive with equality plans and pay audits, sanctions and deterrents to speed up the painfully-slow progress towards equal pay for women
  • protection for non-standard workers, including exploited online platform workers;
  • privacy at work to protect workers’ data and limit digital and personal surveillance;
  • exposure to deadly diesel and reprotoxins, and risky nanotechnologies;
  • whistle-blower protection;
  • protection for self-employed workers

would show the EU’s commitment to social fairness and justice, and to spread the benefits of economic recovery beyond the rich beneficiaries of tax avoidance as exposed by the Panama and now Paradise papers.

Better EU economic policy. The EU’s annual economic policy-making ‘semester’ should become an economic and social semester promoting fair pay and collective bargaining as enthusiastically as budget deficit rules.

A Social Progress Protocol in the EU Treaty to assert that the single market exists to achieve social progress; that economic rules cannot have priority over social rights; that economic freedoms do not give the right to avoid national social and employment laws or to engage in unfair competition on wages and working conditions.

Collective bargaining. More workers in the EU should be covered by a collective agreement and no worker in the EU should be afraid of employer reprisal if they join a union. All member states should promote collective bargaining between trade unions and employers to achieve fair wages and working conditions for all including at sectoral level.

Time is running out for the EU – both for the Juncker-led Commission, that has made some efforts to achieve a fairer EU but has struggled to convince reluctant member states and for mainstream politicians who are losing out to Eurosceptic populists.

The European Pillar of Social Rights looks very much like a last roll of the dice.

Trade unions will be there in Gothenburg meeting ministers and EU institution leaders, seeking a real deal for working people. We’ll be there in Gothenburg, and back in national capitals and EU institutions afterwards, pressing for new rights for working people after years of austerity, wage-restraint and growing inequality.

The Social Pillar is not the promised triple AAA Social Europe but it is a threshold of decency that no one in the EU should fall below.