Employers accused of abusing EU data privacy rules to hinder trade unions

Protesters march across Brussels' European district during a rally 'For a fairer Europe for workers' in Brussels, Belgium, 26 April 2019. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is being misused by employers across Europe as trade unions are denied access to information required to recruit and organise workers, a new study has found.

A survey published today (19 March) by the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) highlights the plight of workforce collectives to mobilise by reaching out to employees digitally and attempt to campaign for better working conditions and fair remuneration.

The research comes at a time when millions of Europeans face an indeterminate period of remote working amid the current coronavirus outbreak, with little to no physical contact with trade union representatives.

Trade Union rights 

“GDPR laws were put in place to protect people from the power of corporations but now corporations are misusing them to protect themselves from people power,” ETUC Deputy General Secretary Esther Lynch said.

“Access to the workplace is a basic trade union right and in 2020 that means digital access too. Without it, trade unions can’t give workers the information they need to negotiate collectively with employers for fair wages and working conditions.”

Lynch called upon the European Commission to promote trade union rights, should it wish to achieve fair wages across member states.

In a recent consultation document on the executive’s package on fair minimum wages, the Commission recognised the importance of trade union activities in achieving just payment in the workplace, stating that “collective bargaining is an essential element of the social market economy promoted by the EU and a strong foundation for good wage setting.”

The trends highlighted in ETUC’s report bring to light the recent challenges for trade unions to mobilise their networks as a result of workplaces refusing access to employee data under the pretext that it is forbidden by the GDPR. In this vein, the report brings to attention cases in a range of EU member states including Spain, Luxembourg and Belgium.

In Belgium, for example, the ETUC states that “a lot of companies use the GDPR to claim that they aren’t allowed to let trade union representatives communicate with all of the workers in their companies, that they can’t provide information on newly hired workers and on subcontracting.”

Article 88

Article 88 of the EU’s GDPR covers the processing of personal data in the context of employment, and notes that member states should “safeguard the data subject’s human dignity, legitimate interests and fundamental rights.”

While there is cause for concern, the ETUC survey also highlighted positive cases such as in Germany, where the amended 2018 Federal Data Protection Act transposed Article 88 of the GDPR to good effect.

Under the German law, a trade union with collective bargaining responsibility is “entitled to send e-mails to the employees’ company e-mail-addresses for the purpose of recruiting members and providing information, even without the employer’s consent and without prior request from the employees,” according to one response to the ETUC survey coming from Germany.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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