Shortly before the Commission’s planned launch of a consultation on the reform of European labour law, employers’ association UNICE launched a fierce attack on the document. EURACTIV talked to Catelene Passchier, who is in charge of social policy and labour law in her position as confederal secretary of ETUC, the European Trade Union Confederation.
There have been several drafts of the Green Paper on labour law, and social partners have seen some of them. Why is UNICE publicly attacking this one – is it that much different from the others?
I am a bit amazed by the UNICE letter – it is totally out of proportion. We were not too happy either, but for completely different reasons. We agree with the Commission that we do have a problem with precarious work; an increasing amount of workers, and especially the vulnerable groups on the labour market such as women, young and migrant workers, are lacking proper labour protection.
Do you refer to false self-employment?
Part of this phenomenon is false self-employment, which is of course attractive for employers, because they can circumvent collective bargaining agreements, and labour law and social security obligations. In addition, the transitional measures for workers form the East are an open invitation for false self-employment, because they put limits to workers moving around in the framework of a direct employment relationship, but not on self employment or agency work. All of this has led to lots of workers out there who are unprotected. That is a matter of great concern to us.
We do agree with the Commission that a discussion is needed on how to deal on the one hand with the growing practice of evading legal provisions and increasing groups on the labour market without proper protection, and on the other hand with new forms of labour and employment and how to modernise labour law to adapt to these developments. But if you look at the draft Green Paper, it is not understandable at all why UNICE screams out so loud about it.
You mentioned that you are not completely happy with the paper either. What is your criticism?
We would also criticise the paper, but we would do so on the grounds that, in many fields, it does not provide proper analysis and is very weak in its suggested actions. For instance, there is a very simplistic and biased assumption in it that the cause of all the trouble is that the normal standard employment relationship is too well protected. We would clearly need to point out the fact that ‘normal’ workers are also increasingly under pressure of deregulation and cuts into social protection. In our view, the document would need to reflect the developments in a broader perspective. But we are ready to start a proper and public debate about all these issues, which is urgently needed.
Isn’t that debate taking place elsewhere anyway?
Partly, this debate has been taking place in the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, in June 2006, where recommendations were adopted on how to deal with the scope of labour law. It is interesting to know that it were the employers, and most of all, the European employers, who obstructed this debate. They said openly that the reason was that they were concerned that the outcomes in Geneva might support the Commission in putting these issues on the agenda. Of course, they know as well as we do that the Commission cannot simply propose to harmonise labour law because of specific Treaty provisions about this, but it can indeed start discussions among member states with a view to promote approximation of laws and practices, and in our view especially if increasing groups of workers are in practice falling outside the scope of European standards.
Now that the Commission is taking some first steps to start this debate, UNICE attempts to blow up the whole thing before it is even officially published. For European workers, that’s really deplorable, because it goes to illustrate that the employers are not ready for a serious discussion about the ‘security’ dimension of flexibility.
UNICE claims that “the present draft gives a negative picture of flexible forms of work and of self-employment”.
Well, since when is UNICE so weak that they cannot bring forward their criticism and comments in a public debate, but try to use powerplay to stop the debate before it has even started? Are they so much afraid that a public debate will show indeed that there are really serious issues at stake that need to be addressed? If the Commission listened to this signal that would even be worse, as it would show that the Commission is more concerned about the interests of business than about the interests of citizens and workers.
What the employers must understand is that they can’t have a debate on flexibility for firms without a debate taking place at the same time on security and social protection for workers. And that the debate is not as one-sided as this: they cannot deny that firms also need security, and workers need flexibility. As long as they want to avoid that debate altogether, their whole talk on flexicurity is only lip-service.