MEP: Enlarged labour market needs social dialogue

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Social dialogue is becoming ever more important in the enlarged EU labour market, and is one of the areas where the EU can best assist member countries, German MEP Nadja Hirsch (ALDE) told EURACTIV Hungary in an exclusive interview.

A psychology graduate and trained mediator, Nadja Hirsch worked for a long time as a city councillor in Munich. In the European Parliament, Nadja Hirsch represents the Liberals in the committees of employment & social affairs, culture & education and civil liberties, justice & home affairs.

She was speaking to EURACTIV Hungary’s Dániel Antal and Rita Kiss.

What do you expect from the opening of the German labour market to the member states that entered the Union in 2007?

The opening of Germany's labour market to eight Eastern European EU member states is a big opportunity for us.

Germany suffers from a shortage of skilled labour. According to a study by the German Federal Employment Agency, it is estimated that by 2025 Germany's active population will decrease by 6.5 million to 38.1 million. This shortage cannot be compensated by better education, the improved integration of women or the prolongation of working life alone. We do need employees from other countries as well.

Has there been any special preparations for the opening of Germany's labour market?

It is not as if the opening of the labour market came as a surprise to Germany. Germany, together with Austria, had restricted access to its labour markets for the maximum duration possible: seven years.

Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU clearly stipulates that "such freedom of movement shall entail the abolition of any discrimination based on nationality between workers of the member states as regards employment, remuneration and other conditions of work and employment".

Germany had seven years to adapt its national legislation to accommodate for these requirements.

Western European labour markets have put in place such atypical labour constructions as agency work, temporary work and foreign postings. What lessons could we learn from this perspective?

According to the EU directive, posted workers are employed and work under the conditions of the country of destination, i.e. the country where they carry out their work. In addition, in some sectors, such as construction or care, foreign companies need to respect minimum standards when posting workers abroad.

This is to ensure that posted workers are employed under the same conditions as workers in that country. The country of destination, in turn, can make sure that the work is completed according to their standards, i.e. in terms of safety, health, etc. and that no wage dumping occurs.

The EU Directive on Temporary and Agency Workers pursues basically the same aim with regards to those working through employment agencies. They also should be paid and employed under the same conditions as other employees in that business.

The lessons to be learned are that the EU will, in the long term, not be able to sustain its growth and well-being when competition is based on where companies can best exploit the differences in working conditions across the countries. A swift implementation of the directives is therefore required in all member states. The overarching goal is to improve the quality of life and living standards for all citizens in the EU.

Are you aware of any political discussions or forthcoming issues with the implementation of the agency work directive that will be transposed into national labour law this year? How are the social partners, especially in view of collective agreements, preparing for this in Germany?

Under the directive, temporary workers posted to an undertaking are to be employed under the same conditions as workers directly recruited by that undertaking. The basic principles are those of equal treatment and equal payment and therefore non-discrimination.

The directive entered into force in 2008 and needs to be transposed into national law by 5 December 2011.

In Germany, temporary agency work has been the subject of some discussions. Whereas temporary work should aim at helping workers find a regular job, they often find themselves changing from one temp job to the next.

From 1 May 2011, a minimum wage for temporary workers will apply in Germany, which, however, can be overridden by a collective agreement. Germany is now discussing whether to expand the minimum wage to other sectors. Some proposals favour a sector-by-sector approach, whereby those sectors would be targeted, which are not yet covered by collective agreements.

As a Liberal MEP, how would you like to see the labour market changed in next ten years in Europe, with respect to social dialogue, regulation and different contractual agreements?

I believe that social dialogue will become even more important, especially when it comes to working conditions, social security, the social protection of workers, collective interests of employees and employers, equal opportunities for men and women at the workplace and the fight against social exclusion. It is in these areas that the EU can best support the member states.

With regards to regulation and contractual agreements it is important that we keep in mind that social policy is generally under the responsibility of the member countries. The open method of coordination allows EU members to cooperate further in some areas, whereas it is not the aim to harmonise policies in such areas. The respect of these principles and mechanisms is important both now and in the future.

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