EU judges reinforce fixed-term workers’ rights


In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Justice confirmed that workers under fixed-duration contracts enjoy rights similar to permanent workers.

The case was brought up by the Irish ‘Impact‘ trade union, which complained, in the name of 91 workers on fixed-term contracts, against the Irish government’s practice of employing a number of civil servants under a chain of fixed-term contracts. This, they said, excluded them from benefits that other government workers got, including pay rises and contributions to pension entitlements. The government could do so because it had failed to transpose the directive on fixed-term work (see ‘Background’) into Irish law in due time. 

Since the case concerns Ireland’s transposition of an EU directive, the Irish Labour Court referred the case to the European Court of Justice. 

On 15 April, the ECJ ruled that even where a member state has failed to properly transpose the non-discrimination clause into national law, the clause remains directly applicable. The Court also stressed that Ireland had an obligation to implement and enforce the directive on fixed-term work and that governments may not pass legislation aimed at circumventing the directive. 

ETUC General Secretary John Monks welcomed the ruling: "Following the very negative rulings in Laval, Viking and Rüffert, the 'Impact' judgement is a bit of good news from the ECJ at last!" 

Monks went on to explain: "We explicitly said in the agreement that indefinite contracts are the general form of employment relationship. Fixed term contracts can only be accepted as a way to respond to specific and temporary needs of both employers and workers, not to create second class workers who would for long periods of time be denied the benefit of stable employment."

Monks further declared: "The interpretation of the European judges of the equal treatment provision to include pay and pension and the liability of national authorities acting as public employers is exactly as we intended it to be. This judgement, in particular the direct effect of the non-discrimination clause and the message that the Directive must be implemented effectively, will help to secure a better protection for fixed term workers around Europe, which was the aim of our agreement." 

Louise O’Donnell, the national secretary of 'Impact', called on the Irish government to finally give in and drop an appeal it filed in 2005 against a ruling by the Irish Rights Commissioner, which entitled the workers concerned to damage payments. "These workers have now waited over three years for justice. Some were threatened with the sack by government departments that were trying to avoid their legal responsibilities. All were denied benefits that permanent colleagues enjoyed, including pay increases, contributory pensions and access to sick pay, training and annual leave. They now deserve a speedy end to this injustice," O'Donnell said.

Back in 1999, the EU's social partners (then the trade union confederation ETUC, employers' federation UNICE and public employers' organisation CEEP) concluded a framework agreement on fixed-term work. The covenant's main objective was to prevent abuse of fixed-term workers. It was endorsed through a Council directive which implemented the following measures: 

  • Non-discrimination: fixed-term workers must not be treated worse than permanent workers. 
  • Member states must pass legislation stipulating at one of the following: 
    • when a fixed-term contract is renewed, objective reasons must be given, or; 
    • the maximum duration of fixed-term contracts must be laid down, or;
    • the number of renewals must be limited. 
  • Fixed-term workers must be taken into account when calculating the minimum number of employees from which a works council must or can be set up. 

Under the directive, employers who fail to respect these obligations face penalties and have to pay compensation to the workers concerned.  

108 million EU citizens were on fixed-term contracts on 2007, up 46 million from the 2002 figure. 

According to 'Impact', the Irish state will now have to pay compensation totalling almost €220,000, plus an undisclosed amount of back pay, to the workers concerned.

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