Fight for workers’ rights in Brussels intensifies ahead of French EU presidency

France, traditionally a champion of workers' rights, is set to assume the EU presidency in January, as Brussels buzzes with legislative files pertaining to workers' issues. EPA-EFE/ROBERTO MONALDO / POOL

The fight for workers’ rights in Brussels is intensifying: the European Parliament is now ready to begin negotiations on a minimum wage directive and to vote on a new report putting pressure on the European Commission to legislate.

On Thursday 25 November, EU lawmakers decided to start talks on a directive that will guarantee all workers in the EU a fair and adequate minimum wage. In the next plenary, they will vote on the “Democracy at work” report, while the Commission is expected to present its proposal for platform workers on 8 December.

The sudden burst of activity around workers’ rights comes at a time when France is about to take over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency from Slovenia, on 1 January.

France is ready to advance the “social agenda that we have been fighting for for four years,” French President Emmanuel Macron told journalists in May.

“The time is right for a new framework directive that will effectively strengthen the voice of workers,” said Gabriele Bischoff, a socialist lawmaker who is the European Parliament’s rapporteur for the “democracy at work” report.

As the world of work changes, “we want to enable workers to be actively involved to shape these dual transitions and not to be just objects of these changes,” she told EURACTIV.

The report points out the need to strengthen EU laws, in order “to ensure that information and consultation is an integral part of company decision-making at all levels,” leading Green MEP Terry Reintke told EURACTIV.

Now that the report has received broad support in the Parliament’s employment and social affairs committee, getting the approval of the plenary should be easier, Bischoff said.

“If this report is successful in the plenary, the Commission is called upon to submit a legislative proposal in the near future,” she explained.

During her inaugural speech in Parliament, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen “promised to respond with a legislative act when a majority of EP Members adopts a resolution,” she added.

EU Parliament enters the fray in workers’ push for co-determination

The European Parliament is seeking to put a stop to a perceived decline in workers’ participation in corporate decision-making – an issue that affects 190 million employees across Europe – and bring the European Commission to heel.

Minimum wage fight

The second important dossier on workers’ rights in Brussels is the so-called minimum wage directive proposed in 2020.

Monthly minimum wages vary widely across the EU, ranging from €312 in Bulgaria to €2,142 in Luxembourg, according to a briefing by the European Parliament, something that lawmakers sought to address in a report voted in plenary.

“A raise of minimum wages all over Europe is part of our election manifesto,” said Agnes Jongerius, an MEP for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group who is co-author of the report.

As a consequence of widespread support in favour of the minimum wage report, the European Parliament mandate in negotiations with the Council was established on 25 November.

The Parliament’s negotiating position will be centered on the credos of: “minimum wage should ensure a decent standard of living” and strengthening collective bargaining in countries where it covers fewer than 80% of workers, while respecting national prerogatives and the autonomy of social partners to determine wages.

But the push for a minimum wage directive has been lambasted by Nordic trade unions and EU lawmakers, as they feared an erosion of their labour market model.

In order to begin negotiations in earnest, the ministers of EU states must come to a common position within the Council. A common position had initially been expected during the Portuguese Council presidency in the first half of 2021, and is now expected in December or during the French presidency starting in January 2022.

Danish and Swedish socialists fight against minimum wage directive

The minimum wage directive is a key policy goal for European Social Democrats, but leftist parties and trade unions in Denmark and Sweden see it as a danger for their labour market model. They have collected enough signatures to force a vote in November’s European Parliament plenary, potentially delaying the directive for months.

Gig working conditions

There is another big social policy file drawing the EU’s attention: on 8 December, the Commission is expected to propose legislation granting equal rights for so-called platform workers.

Platform workers are a recent phenomenon, where digital, often app-based platforms like Uber, Lieferando or Amazon’s mechanical turk, connect workers with customers, to whom they provide a service in exchange for money.

While the companies laud their business model as “flexible” and “accommodating,” EU lawmakers are concerned. “Flexibility, yes, but not at the expense of social protection,” MEP Sylvie Brunet (Renew) told EURACTIV.

Contacted by EURACTIV, Uber says it “supports efforts to strengthen independent work – rather than eliminate it – with industry-wide minimum standards that protect all platform workers.”

As platforms threaten to lay off workers or shutter their European operations, the Commission must reconcile the interests of industry and workers.

The goal of the Commission with the expected proposal was “to ensure that people working through platforms have decent working conditions while supporting the sustainable growth of digital labour platforms in the EU,” a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.

Between flexibility and precariousness, all eyes are on Brussels' move on platform workers

The European Commission, which is due to present its proposal on platform workers on 8 December, faces a tricky balancing act: ensuring decent working conditions while maintaining the flexibility of a booming sector.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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