Worker advocates call for more ‘democracy at work’ ahead of Porto Summit

"Strengthening democracy in the workplace is also an element in strengthening democracy as a whole," MEP Gaby Bischoff (S&D) told EURACTIV. [Shutterstock | Drazen Zigic]

Trade unions and other labour supporters are continuing their push for greater worker involvement in company decisions, now labelling this as an effort for “more democracy at work.” They want to see this topic play a larger role on the EU’s agenda, particularly at the upcoming Porto Social Summit.

This year should be “the year for more democracy at work,” the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) declared in a press release in March. 

More specifically, this term means “informing, consulting, and allowing workers to participate in the decision-making processes of businesses for the aim of improving working conditions and anticipating the business development and their impacts on workers,” the ETUC’s Confederal Secretary, Isabelle Schömann, explained in an interview with EURACTIV. 

However, this goes beyond the workplace, according to German MEP Gaby Bischoff (S&D), the author of an upcoming initiative report on Democracy at Work expected in the European Parliament’s EMPL Committee in June. 

“It is one of the fundamental rights of Europe. We have a right to information and consultation for all employees. It is precisely for democracy as a whole that people also have a say in their workplace. That’s why, for me, strengthening democracy in the workplace is also an element in strengthening democracy as a whole,” she told EURACTIV in an interview.  

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Concrete action from the Porto Summit

At the Porto Social Summit starting on 7 May, the EU and member state governments will renew their commitment to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR), and social policy will be front and centre.

The roadmap for this implementation lies in the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan, which the Commission released in early March and establishes 2030 targets for the EU in a variety of areas. 

Portugal’s Secretary of State for European affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias, told EURACTIV partner Lusa in early April that the “big point” of the summit is “moving from the time of principles to the time of action.”

“We already have the commitment of the European institutions,” Zacarias said. “What we want to find is the commitment of member states, but even more: our ambition is that also companies and also trade unions and civil society commit themselves to these goals.”

There is a push amongst advocates for ‘democracy at work’ to play a central role at the summit, and first and foremost, this should include ‘binding targets’ with the support of member state governments, they assert. 

While the ETUC has praised the EPSR Action Plan for “outlining a forward-looking vision of a social Europe,” Schömann and the organisation still see shortcomings when it comes to binding goals. The parts discussing worker involvement are “not developed at all and there is no action whatsoever linked to it, and that’s a shame,” she said. 

On the subject of moving from ideas to action, Bischoff pointed to the last social summit in Gothenburg in 2017.

“If someone had told us at the time that we would have to wait until 2021 until there was a binding action program for the pillar, and then the summit, I probably would not have thought it possible. I would not have thought that it would take so long,” she told EURACTIV. 

“I now see that certain governments, and the German government is one of them, tend to put the brakes on when it comes to making social Europe a concrete reality, as is the case now with the summit,” she added.  

Overall, however, Bischoff is not pessimistic. Asked whether she thinks labour activist points will play a role in Porto, she responded: “We don’t really know yet. It’s been very quiet around the Summit, but I’m convinced that the Portuguese presidency will really do everything and get everything out that’s possible.” 

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Post-pandemic transformations

With Europe inching towards a post-pandemic era, questions around the future of work are starting to return to issues like green and digital transformation. Here too, workers’ involvement is essential, worker advocates maintain. 

“Democracy at work is there to shape these transformations so that they deliver for the workers as much as they do for the businesses, that no one is left behind,” Schömann explained.

For Bischoff, the key to this is developing minimum standards for the entire EU.

“We have very different systems, but we have always operated in Europe with European minimum standards that we want to safeguard, with core elements that should be guaranteed in all member states,” she explained. Such standards, she added, could ensure quality working conditions as questions arise about these transformations, such as arrangements for platform workers. 

Furthermore, Bischoff is confident that the idea of EU minimum standards will gain momentum going forward. Given the unique “major upheaval situation,” she believes that “you can also get support from corners that otherwise do not traditionally have the question of stronger employee rights as a priority issue.”  

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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