Social dialogue must be stronger after the pandemic, trade union leader says

Michael Vassiliadis, president of IndustriAll Europe and chair of IG BCE, says that there is still a mixed picture on trade union involvement in negotiating national coronavirus recovery strategies, despite the Commission's recent call for more social dialogue. [IG BCE | Helge Krückeberg]

Nearly a year into the coronavirus crisis in Europe, the world of work has changed drastically with more transformation on the horizon. In an interview with EURACTIV, trade union leader Michael Vassiliadis discusses the EU policy agenda from economic recovery to the Democracy Action Plan and responsible supply chains.

Michael Vassiliadis is the president of industriAll Europe and chair of IG BCE, a German trade union with more than 630,000 members that represents workers in a variety of sectors including coal, chemical, mining, and pharmaceutical industries. 

Coronavirus recovery is on the agenda for the coming months. A common criticism among trade unions is that they are not involved in some member states’ negotiations for national strategies to allocate this money. Commissioner Gentiloni recently called for more union involvement in these recovery plans. Are you seeing positive movement in this regard?

I believe the Commission has recognised that it makes sense to involve the social partners. After all, it has responded to the criticism that it acts mainly economically and too little socially with the initiative of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR). However, this has so far been pursued with little vigour. Commission President Ursula von Leyen has also taken up many positive aspects from a trade union perspective in her government program. These must now also be worked through piece by piece, for example the issue of a framework for minimum wages in the EU.

However, as far as the involvement of trade unions in national strategies for the use of the recovery fund is concerned, the situation is still very mixed. My European colleagues tell me about very different experiences, some of which are worrying. For example, certain sectoral interests are hardly taken into account, or work continues to push back collective bargaining in individual countries by law.

As far as the German situation is concerned, we unions are involved. Even before the pandemic, the government involved us in various initiatives of industrial change, the transformation of our energy industry to renewable industries. We are getting involved in the public debate on how we can emerge from the pandemic stronger and without major job losses, if possible. It is clear that not all of our wishes will be met, but we are recognised as experts and always find a sympathetic ear with the federal government.

EU's Gentiloni calls for greater involvement of unions in recovery plans

The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 could turn into a “social crisis”, the EU’s economic  affairs commissioner Paolo Gentiloni has warned, calling for greater involvement from trade unions in the elaboration of national recovery plans. 

There were also rapid changes in the workplace due to the pandemic. Trade unions have highlighted their role in negotiating these changes, but they also fear that the emergency measures implemented to allow companies to make decisions more quickly could be used in the future to limit social dialogue. How do you see the future of social dialogue within European companies after the pandemic? 

I believe that social dialogue in European companies must emerge stronger from the pandemic, because employers have to realise that the employees’ interest groups have made the safety and health requirements in the pandemic a success. By working together to track the numbers of all those infected at all sites, the European Works Councils have moved closer together. We were only able to meet this challenge together. National egoisms would not have helped.

Breaches of trust, on the other hand, occurred where companies gave the impression that they were using the crisis to speed up staff reductions. One particular example from my field is the closure of Continental’s profitable tyre plant in Aachen. This will certainly continue to weigh on the social dialogue for some time. It is up to management to rebuild trust here.

In addition to the social dialogue at company level, there is also a European social dialogue at industry level. There, the pandemic has shown that we need to bring the production of important drugs back to Europe to become less vulnerable to supply restrictions from India or China. 

After a year of disruption, changes to the world of work will continue

2020 saw the swift transformation of work as an unprecedented amount of people worked from home, while others had to completely change their systems to adapt to the health crisis. Though the end of the pandemic is in sight, certain changes will remain and even accelerate in 2021. 

The European Commission is looking to present its updated industrial strategy in March, which aims to address the green and digital transformations. What do you see as the strengths of the approach that the Commission has outlined thus far? Are there drawbacks to be addressed? 

The Commission has looked in great detail at the opportunities for the various energy-intensive industries in Europe. I expect an ambitious and implementable plan to reduce CO2 by 2050. The digital transformation is a helpful support for the Green Deal on the one hand and an accelerator of change in the world of work on the other. What impact this will have on the world of work can only be foreseen in rudimentary form so far. It will be important for the trade unions to be involved in this transformation and for the Commission President’s dictum of “leaving nobody behind” to be translated into practical policy.

With some of the Commission’s initiatives, I get the impression that it is following the “green zeitgeist” more and more and caring less about the facts. The planned chemicals strategy, for example, has made various stipulations that are very non-binding and emotional. For me, it would be more important to refer to scientific facts and less to moods. This is where we will join forces with our European federation industriAll Europe in the discussion. 

Last year, German development ministers Gerd Müller and labour minister Hubertus Heil led a push for a German supply chain law that had a diverse array of support in industry, including from IG BCE, but by the end of the German presidency, it wasn’t passed. What do you see as the core issues stopping this law in Germany, and what does this mean for the EU’s effort to implement a similar law if Germany can’t get this done?

The core problem is the refusal of too many companies to offer their own initiatives and at the same time refuse a legal solution. Many multinational companies accept workers’ rights and co-determination in Germany and Europe. But when we point out problems in other countries, they reply that they do nothing there that is not mandatory. Which is true, because in Asia or South America, for example, workers’ rights are not yet as developed, but universal human rights should apply worldwide.

On a small scale, we succeed here and there. For example, for more than 20 years we have had a trade union network in South America with all the trade unions that organise the plants of the chemical company BASF. This network is also supported by the company and shows on the ground that social dialogue is not a profit-minimisation programme, but also makes good business sense.

There is now a green light from the Chancellor’s Office. I dare to doubt whether a European solution depends only on Germany, as there are already laws in France and the Netherlands that deal with due diligence. The charm of a European solution is a uniform regulation for all European multinationals and multinationals with European locations. A level playing field would establish a certain equality of treatment.

German labour ministry ramps up pressure for supply chain law

Creating responsible global supply chains with fair wages and working conditions is a key theme for Germany’s labour ministry (BMAS) during the country’s EU Council Presidency. On Tuesday (6 October), Labour Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) made the case for a national and eventually European framework.

Another issue on the table for the Commission is strengthening democracy, summed in the Democracy Action Plan released in December. Some trade unions have argued that this should also include considerations for ‘democracy at work.’ Could you elaborate on what this means? 

For years, we have observed that there are companies that are fleeing corporate co-determination. To avoid adhering to the German Codetermination Act, they transform themselves into a European Company (Societas Europaea, SE) before they reach 2000 employees. At the same time, many companies escape co-determination and higher taxes by moving their headquarters to other European countries. These are big problems.

It would also be important to extend the information and consultation rights of European Works Councils. They need legal protection, because the threat of punishment for non-compliance with these rights has not been possible up to now.

During the financial crisis of 2008/2009, many countries interfered with collective bargaining autonomy and have not recovered from this damage. We are campaigning for these laws to be changed again and for collective bargaining to be extended, because this is always the fairer form of wage determination. This is the only way to increase prosperity, purchasing power and tax revenues in Europe. 


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