European workers’ rights up in the air

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Conservative MEPs and businesses are equally upset about the changes Socialist deputies introduced to the text on European Works Councils this week, saying it went far beyond what social partners had agreed upon this summer. Doubts have now arisen as to the likelihood of it being adopted by member states before the end of the year.

The European Parliament’s employment committee approved the text on Monday night (17 November), with 36 MEPs voting in favour, 1 against and 10 abstentions. The text will now be put to the plenary in mid-December, where adoption is far from certain given the various amendments introduced by the Socialist Group. 

Conservatives feel betrayed by Socialists

Centre-right MEO Philip Bushill-Matthews (EPP-ED), the Parliament’s rapporteur on the dossier, who abstained from the vote, said he felt deceived by the trade unions, which he said had specifically asked him not to table any amendments to the deal reached by the social partners. “I accepted their advice on the assumption that the other side would do the same and respect the agreement,” he told EURACTIV. 

He blamed trade unions for “actively encouraging” socialist MEPs to table a number of amendments “which would move the agreement in a very different direction”. 

Talking to EURACTIV, Dutch Socialist shadow rapporteur on the Works Council Directive, Jan Cremers, dismissed this view, saying he had never agreed to not table any amendments. He said he had emailed his conservative counterpart “a list of items that I wanted to table” but had received no reply. 

To the contrary, Cremers accused Bushill-Matthews of trying to delay the legislative process by refusing any amendments to the text and asked him to return his mandate as rapporteur, given he had not found the backing of the committee. 

Works councils in all companies? 

Businesses were equally outraged by the new amendments, which mean tougher rules for companies. 

MEPs deleted a clause asking for a threshold of 50 employees to be required in order to establish a Works Council (EWC) for trans-European companies, which they claimed would have discriminated against smaller member states. “Employees in the member states should be fairly represented regardless of the total number of employees in a European undertaking,” the adopted text reads. 

Although unhappy with the outcome, businesses could eventually agree to this, Jorgen Rønnest from BusinessEurope told EURACTIV, before adding that there were at least five or six member states which had expressed sympathy for scrapping the threshold. 

Business fury over transnationality clause 

Industry’s main concerns refer to the altered definition of transnationality. MEPs agreed that this would apply to cases where a closure or restructuring decision taken in one member state affects workers in another. 

In practice, this means that the management of a trans-European company will have to consider common responses formulated by works councils in countries affected by the closure or restructuring.

Socialists insisted that the new directive had to take into account court rulings such as the Vilvoorde case, in which a decision by the French carmaker Renault to close plants in the Brussels suburb triggered widespread public outrage. 

Jorgen Rønnest from BusinessEurope told EURACTIV that this was “completely unacceptable” and would not provide the legal certainty businesses need. 

Sanctions for non-compliance 

Socialists also inserted a clause calling for sanctions in case companies do not fully comply with the rules. However, the concrete application of sanctions is left up to the member states. 

MEPs proposed a full review of the directive three years after implementation. 

Still hoping for an agreement in 2008

Conservative MEPs made clear that they would only give their approval in plenary on the basis of what the social partners had agreed. 

“If MEPs wish to insist on the committee decision, then there will be no first reading agreement and there probably will be no recast directive at all. The Socialists and the trade unions would then have destroyed what could have been workable legislation,” said Bushill-Matthews. 

MEPs said they will now try to reach a common position with the member states before the employment ministers meet on 15-16 December. If no deal can be reached, the process will be delayed until next year. 

German Green MEP Elisabeth Schroedter welcomed the vote, saying that the committee had demonstrated the "courage to eventually call for deterrent sanctions on companies still opposing the creation of European Works Councils". 

Jorgen Rønnest from BusinessEurope said the amendments introduced by the Socialist Group were "completely unacceptable" and would "upset the balance" found with social partners. "It is now a completely new game." 

The European Works Councils Directive of 1994 obliges companies with 1,000 or more workers and at least 150 employees in two or more member states of the European Economic Area (all EU states plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) to set up councils with worker representatives from all countries. 

Since 2004, trade unions had been pressing for a review of the text, pointing to large gaps in its implementation. Indeed, twelve years after the directive entered into force, only a third of companies have implemented it, with medium-sized businesses of up to 5,000 workers lagging behind the most. 

Despite business opposition to a recast of the text, in February the European Commission announced a review aimed at strengthening workers' consultation and information rights. The objective was to find an agreement with social partners, but the latter could not overcome their differences before August (EURACTIV 05/09/08). 

  • 15-16 Dec 2008: EU employment ministers expected to discuss the text.  
  • 18-19 Dec 2008: Parliament plenary set to vote on the text. 

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