Diverse forms of work call for out-of-the-box solutions for social protection

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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The European Union is undoubtedly a good place to work – certainly compared with many other regions of the world – however, there is always room for improvement. One area where Europe needs to address shortcomings are social protection systems for new and diverse forms of work, writes Michael Freytag.

Dr Michael Freytag is the public affairs manager at the World Employment Confederation-Europe.

Modern labour markets are characterised by new and diverse ways of working and rising individualism and we need social protection systems that reflect this and meet the needs of today’s workers. While social structures have evolved and the days of the single, male, breadwinner are far behind us, our social protections have not always kept pace.

All too often we are trying to push a one-size-fits-all approach based around the full-time, permanent contracts of the past.

The arrival of the new European Commission provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on Europe’s labour market practices and consider them with fresh eyes. In a recent survey by Bertelsmann Stiftung, which asked EU citizens what they saw as the most important issues for the incoming European Commission to tackle, jobs came in second place – cited by 34% of people and social security third – mentioned by 23% of people.

The World Employment Confederation-Europe recently brought together a range of stakeholders including the European Commission, think tanks and other labour market actors to debate best approaches in reforming Europe’s social protection systems.

All parties agreed that a good starting point in addressing social protections and safety nets might be to ask people what they want. There is little research in this area and policymakers need to understand whether workers are seeking flexibility or stability.

With workplace transitions on the rise, we need to ensure that they are accompanied by some form of stability and security. Adequate social protections and rights are essential in driving economic growth, and granting them will serve to facilitate entrepreneurship.

Nobody can thrive in an environment where they fear for their rights and protections and are forced to stay in a job they dislike.

The first step is to identify where there are gaps, in order to target the right initiatives. An issue that is certainly a priority on the agenda of the new European Commission is the rise of the platform economy and working conditions for people working via online platforms. One of its first planned actions is to map out the variety of business models under which such platforms operate.

A key caveat, pointed out during our discussion with EU stakeholders, was that the main problem is not whether the worker is hired online or offline. What really matters is the status of the worker – whether he/she is classified as employed or self-employed.

For example, an agency worker hired through an app could be considered as a platform worker, even though the work he undertakes is regulated under the same conditions as the work carried out by an agency worker hired through a traditional agency.

In many instances rules already exist for a variety of different worker categories and situations, and these approaches can similarly be applied to platform work. National and societal differences also have implications for the social contract and sustainability of welfare systems – and should, therefore, be taken into account.

Improvements do not necessarily have to come from legislation – there are a number of different instruments available and we need to ensure that whatever approach we choose is flexible and able to adapt to the changes in reality. Today’s labour market is evolving fast and it is a challenge to ensure that legislation keeps pace with developments.

All participants in our lunch debate agreed on the need to think out-of-the-box. Social partners and employers can help here by introducing new and innovative approaches to social protection.

The World Employment Confederation-Europe members are already doing so through schemes that support workers in the new economy to secure mortgages, help with child childcare and ongoing upskilling.

Case studies from European markets including France, Germany, Norway and Switzerland can be found in the industry’s latest social impact report “Labour market activation, transitions and inclusiveness: The contribution of the private employment services industry” as well as on the dedicated Social Innovation Stories website.

The World Employment Confederation-Europe is also currently working with UNI-Europa, the trade union for services sectors including temporary agency workers, on a research project which will gather further social innovation practices from right across Europe.

Part of the EU Sectoral Social Dialogue, the project concentrates on innovative practices in the areas of access to training, working conditions and social protection and will also analyse the role of sectoral social dialogue in fostering social innovation in the temporary agency work industry in each of these areas.

The project includes a series of three workshops with EU stakeholders and national experts leading in social innovation, held in Brussels between September 2019 and April 2020. The whole project is due to be completed in mid-2020 and will serve to inform and support future policy direction.

In the new world of work, we need to recognise that while people are looking for greater flexibility, they nevertheless still seek security. Future policies need social innovation to ensure that they balance individuals’ needs with social rights.

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