The COVID–19 pandemic has created a “pressure cooker” that has accelerated the process of changes at work and challenged concepts of social protection, EU officials and stakeholders said at a recent event hosted by EURACTIV.
Speaking at the event on the ‘Future of Work’ in the wake of the pandemic, Joost Korte, director general at DG EMPL in the European Commission, pointed out that the number of Europeans teleworking has increased from 5% to 50% last year.
That, in turn, has created new challenges for work-life balance and resulted in the blurring of boundaries between work and private life, as well as in the lack of social contact, he added.
In January, the European Parliament called for a ‘right to disconnect’ to be enshrined in EU law.
The EU executive is planning an initiative on platform work that will look at how to provide social rights for workers and the need to ensure transparency of decisions made by algorithms.
However, the plethora of recent legal cases, across a number of EU states, has underscored the complexity of regulating the sector, said Korte, noting that there are over 140 ongoing legal cases related to platform work across the EU27.
Korte explained that the current treaties “reflect the conditions of the ’50s and ’60s” and preclude EU legislate on self–employed people, adding that the differences between standard employment contracts and those for self–employed are becoming “excessively difficult” in many member states.
At the same time, the cost of funding social protection and particularly public pension systems remains “the elephant in the room”, said Alison Martin, CEO of EMEA Zurich.
“We just have to have those honest conversations and we need to accept this and celebrate the extension of life. Something has to give in this. Social protection systems were designed in an era where life expectancy was very different.
We don’t currently fund for the life expectancy we are going to have […] the pay as you go model isn’t working. It feels like the elephant in the room at the moment.”
“The demographic pyramid suggests that we urgently need to readdress retirement ages,” said Dragos Pislaru, a Renew Europe MEP on the employment committee, who also called for a “more pro–active social contract”.
“We need to have people aware of the fact that the public system cannot cater for their pension in a satisfactory way,” he added, underscoring the need for people to diversify sources of pension income, and postponing the date of retirement.
In the meantime, there are indications that public demands for strong social protection at EU and national level are stronger than ever. A recent Eurobarometer survey found that 88% say social Europe was important to them.
For their part, at a summit in Porto hosted by the Portuguese EU presidency in March, EU leaders gave their renewed backing to the European Pillar of Social Rights.
“We have a generation of new people who have a completely different attitude to the workplace,” said Mariya Mincheva, of the employers’ group in the European Economic and Social Committee, noted that European businesses are still struggling from what she described as “excessive regulation and burdens within the social market”.
Alison Martin, emphasised the economic value of employers looking after their workers’ wellbeing, noting that 20 to 25% of the claims Zurich receives are related to mental health wellbeing claims.
“COVID revealed the importance of social protection and shows how governments can provide support when they want to,” said Mihai Palimarciuc, European Policy Centre, pointing to the unprecedented financial support programmes offered to businesses and the self–employed in the wake of the pandemic.
“The new social contract is indispensable for democracy,” he added.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]