Ségol: Financial tax must repair crisis damage

Bernadette Segol small.jpg

A financial transaction tax is needed to repair the damage of the financial crisis, which has cost millions in jobs, and the money should be used to invest in low-carbon growth and employment, said Bernadette Ségol, the newly-appointed secretary-general of the European Trade Union Confederation, in an interview with EURACTIV. 

Bernadette Ségol is the newly-appointed secretary-general of the European Trade Union Confederation.

She was speaking to EURACTIV Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The Commission has presented its post-2013, seven-year budget proposal. Do you think it is social enough?

I would start by saying that we haven't had in the ETUC enough time to have a proper assessment of the budget. It requires thorough analysis and it's not something you can do overnight. You really need to look at the figures more in depth.

However, we reacted quite quickly to Mr Barroso's proposal. Obviously we welcomed the financial transactions tax (FTT). We were told so often that it was not possible, and suddenly Mr Barroso's recognition saying it could be an own resource for the EU budget was positive.

But if my analysis of the budget is correct, this would only come into effect in 2018, and our concern is that such a tax would allow member states to diminish their contributions to the EU budget.

We think that certainly if we have an FTT it should be more for additional investment, growth and jobs, which is our priority, and not to replace income that should be there anyway.

A number of countries are still opposed to the FTT. Wouldn't there be a way for Barroso to make the pill more palatable if it decreased member states' contribution in this time of austerity cuts and boost EU's own resources? That would in the long term allow Brussels to be less dependent on member states…

Maybe, but we want an FTT for investment and jobs. We want the FTT to be used because the banks and the financial system have brought us into a deep crisis that has cost millions of jobs, and we need their money to turn the situation around.

We are sticking to the view that the FTT should be there to repair the damage that the financial sector has brought about in the economy, and for jobs and for workers and for their families.

Not only to give the EU the money that it needs, as the EU budget is not sufficient for the investment, for innovation. But the use of the FTT must be to repair the damage.

One of the tools to repair the damage is the European Globalisation Fund, and that has decreased slightly. Before it was €500 million a year…

Now it's €439.

It has decreased despite the crisis. Would you say that the Globalisation Fund also had to be raised?

Yes. We are disappointed with the reduction in the Globalisation Fund. But it's very difficult for us to see what is happening with the Fund itself. We don't have any participation, consultation or vision into processes.

That's why giving participation rights to trade unions would be welcome.

The problem with this fund is its accessibility. We want a fund that is accessible to people who have suffered from the crisis. Obviously, it is normal that the Commission should be very cautious on the use of money, that's clear. But in times of crisis there is a need to have funding that is somehow flexible and can adapt to difficult circumstances.

And I'm not sure that this is the case with this Globalisation Fund. And we would like to ask the Commission why they diminished this amount. We don't have that answer yet.

The Globalisation Fund was launched several years ago to help companies with the restructuring of their business. That goes back to the previous Commission. Would you say that has worked? Maybe that's why they didn't raise the amount …

Yes, but instead of not raising the amount, did they ask why it didn't work? Were the rules adequate? What did it address? It is very difficult to say that there is no need for such a fund nowadays with the crisis. So I think it is true that not all the funds were used, I don't have the figures, but then instead of saying "OK the fund was not fully used" we have to ask why, because the needs are there.

And we don't have that answer. One of the problems we have with this fund is precisely that it is not transparent. We believe that we should – because it is meant to help workers in difficulty – trade unions should be involved, informed, consulted, as we are with structural funds. That's one of the problems.

The European Social Fund will grow by 7.5% in the new budget period. Is that what you had advocated?

The increase of the Social Fund is surely positive. The problem is the conditions that are attached to the use of this fund by the member states.

The Commission is saying the Fund will be used to implement the Europe 2020 strategy to spur growth. But on the other hand you see that it is meant also to implement the recommendations of the European Semester. As you know, we have a lot of problems with that.

So, if the conditions attached to the use of the Social Fund are tied to projects to implement more flexibility and wage cuts, then we are not going to be happy at all.

The figure per sé is fine but to access that money, the question is, which projects are going to be acceptable? That's the question. And there we have a problem. I was very concerned when I read that one of the conditions would be implementation of the national programme according to the European Semester.

So let's wait and see, but you're asking me, so my answer is, 'yes, of course we are happy if the Social Fund is bigger, but we are worried about the conditions that are likely to attached to it'.

You talked about lack of transparency. Are you complaining about the lack of involvement of social partners in the preparation of the budget proposal?

We gave our recommendations to the Commission but we were not fully involved. We gave our views but I would not call that involvement. Now this is not the end of the story. The whole thing will have to be discussed in the Parliament and other circles and I hope we that can regain some influence.

So if you had Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski in front of you today, what would you tell him?

I would first say that we would like to have been consulted. Then I would say that the use of the FTT should be to help repair the damage. Then tell him that the use of the cohesion and structural funds should not be made dependent on national programmes according to the European Semester, because these national programmes are most of the time anti-social.

You have just been elected as the new secretary-general of the ETUC for four years.  Two questions: Where do you think social dialogue is going at European level? Second, what would you want your legacy to be?

On social dialogue, the answer is: I don't know. For the ETUC, social dialogue is very important because it is a way to find solutions. It has proved effective at national level and in many, many respects we would like it to be effective also at European level. But that means that it has to be taken seriously.

It has to be developed, not only internally in our discussions with BusinessEurope [the employers' umbrella organisation], but also when we meet the Commission in the tripartite dialogue. We've got to improve the results in the macroeconomic dialogue. ETUC will continue with the social dialogue, but we need to see more results.

What would be a good benchmark for you? What is a good result?

A good result is a proper negotiation leading to a compromise. We have on the table now this Working Time Directive, which is extremely difficult. We cannot negotiate on two or three points. Negotiation is putting everything on the table.

That would be a very concrete result. Another concrete result would be to establish a "Solidarity Pact" at this very risky time. To have real discussions that would mean a solution for Europe and not an attack on social rights.

Do you think there has been an attack on social rights?

There is an attack on social rights. If you read the Commission's recommendations to EU countries, everything is concentrated on wages, working conditions, flexibilisation, liberalisation of public services and so on. Instead of saying wages can be constructive for the economy and efficient public services are good for our model and our economies. Then it's an attack!

Do you reckon this situation is due to the fact that there are not many socialist governments in power at the moment?

Obviously we depend on the political environment, and the political environment is liberal or neo-liberal. But if you look at Europe, the most competitive countries are the countries where you've had the highest level of dialogue and very strong trade unions, like the Nordic countries.

To oppose social dialogue and competitiveness is unfounded. The Commission's recommendations are worse, I would say, than the "six-pack" rules of EU economic governance being discussed in the Parliament. We hope to bend them towards more reasonable demands of trade unions, workers, etc.

Would you have thought a few years ago when 'flexicurity' became the economic leitmotiv to restructure the labour market that it would lead to this kind of attack?

Yes. When the Commission started speaking about "flexicurity" I remember I was active in my own organisation. We always said "Where is the security part?" I remember that it was always our point. We do not oppose flexibility as long as it is negotiated. But where is the security part? The only answer that we have had was that the security will lie in the capacity of workers to find another job.

But you know real flexicurity works only if you boost investment. A lot of money is spent in Denmark on flexicurity to make sure that workers who are changing job are trained and paid during their training. The amount of money spent for real, negotiated flexicurity shows we have never even seen the beginning of it. The only thing we heard was "Workers should be sacked without any notice".

There are two conditions to have real and positive flexicurity. The first condition is negotiation. The second, the state has to invest a lot of money in people who are made redundant and train them for another job.

If the state doesn't want to do that or doesn't have the funds to do that, then we are not prepared and we are legitimising a system to get rid of workers.

A follow-up on that: Youth unemployment is very high in Europe. In some countries, like Sweden – one of the most progressive and socially-minded countries – more and more young people are shying away from the unions and trying to negotiate their own contracts, because they find that the workplace has changed and unions are not doing enough for their jobs. Would you think that maybe the workplace is changing and that unions should adapt and change too?

The workplace is changing. The contracts are changing. A lot of things are changing. Certainly, and the fact is that unions need to change, yes. I'm not afraid to say that. I do say that unions are structures with history, and it is difficult for structures to move. You have to have leadership pushing for adaptation to the new labour market.

At the same time, trade unions insist that workers are defended collectively. You can have young professionals saying "Why should I negotiate my salary collectively, it is better for me to negotiate directly". It can last for a while but not necessarily forever, because working life is long and these young people might come to realise that there are some collective rights that they need. That's the first thing.

It is indisputable that basic collective rights must be provided within a structured contract, while other can things can be dealt with in a more individual way in some cases. However, we are speaking of a category of workers that is very much highly-skilled, or let's say between skilled and highly-skilled.

Workers in low-paid jobs cannot negotiate individually. They can't. We are defending all categories of workers and certainly these categories of low-paid, "weak" workers are very much at the centre of our concern.

Unions have to change and have to adapt to new contracts, new labour markets. But I think employers and governments also have to change because unions are also very useful to have an organised workforce and to find solutions to problems.

So considering unions simply like a "pain in the neck" is counter-productive: we are certainly defending the rights of the workers. We are trying to improve their daily life, but we also trying to find solutions in companies and at sectoral level. Employers have to recognise it. Some of them do but I can see that too often it's easy to say "Unions have to change, they are something of the past".

You go in companies where you have no organised workforce, is it really better? No. So we have to change but our counterparts have to change too.

Do you see an "exit strategy" for the Working Time Directive? Perhaps that could be your legacy?

That would be a great legacy. Look, we have one very complicated issue which is the individual opt-out, something we can't accept. We could not accept a boss saying to a worker: "Sign this piece of paper or you're out". That's the individual opt-out and we can't accept it.

It's not a good for some workers to to work 70 hours per week. This individual capacity to opt-out is for us one of the key problems. If there are problems we want to look at them on a case-by-case basis, but not in general say that if you are on-call then it's not working, it's not acceptable.

We might consider cases when there is a problem, but let's not speak in general. Let's talk about concrete cases where there might be problems.

This is a discussion we need to have with the employers and I hope we're going to deal with these questions, including the opt-out. I mean for us it's not possible to have a negotiation on just the issues where the Court of Justice has been favourable to us.

On the on-call they gave us the credit and also for sick leave. So we're not going to give that up. We're not going to sign off another legislation to have lower protection!

So this is going to drag on for another few years…

Well, you never know! We've told BusinessEurope that we're ready to negotiate but we need preliminary discussions to check that we are on a sound ground, a sound basis. If we are on a sound basis we will start fair negotiations. We are here to negotiate for real, not pretend.

That's why we have asked for this period of preliminary discussion or clarification ahead of starting negotiations. When you embark on a negotiation you never know, but it can bring results if both sides want to have a solution.

Circumstances play a role too.


So, the legacy…

The legacy… Our immediate problem is economic governance, so that the new rules are not anti-worker. When I say anti-worker, I mean that they do not put pressure on wages, flexibilisation and so on, because we agree that economic governance is necessary.

The second one, quite clearly, is linked to the decision of the Court of Justice on the Laval, Ruffert, Viking cases [on social dumping], because giving priority to economic freedoms over social fundamental rights and creating in Europe competition on wages and working conditions is not acceptable.

It's not only that it's not acceptable morally, but it's undermining the support of a lot of people for the European Union. If they see that the European Union is recommending that their colleague whose employer is in another country and is paid 30% less than he is, creating pressure on his own status and working conditions, you can imagine what impact can that have on the EU.

The reaction of workers to Europe is very negative. It's very negative because of cases like that, where Europe is appearing as the instrument of the demolition of working conditions.

So my legacy … Make some progress on that, which is linked to the Posting of Workers Directive, and economic governance. To that I would add social dialogue. Not only social dialogue at European level, but we are seeing now a frontal attack on the structure of social dialogue, especially in new member states like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland.

So when we speak about social dialogue we have to be serious. It's not just a few meetings in Brussels that we welcome. Social dialogue can only be effective if the structures exist at national level. And when some governments are busy undermining all that then we have to fight, and we will fight.

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