Ministers to adopt slimmed-down labour market proposals


Employment ministers gathering in Brussels on 5 and 6 December are set to adopt dossiers on flexicurity, company pensions and temporary agency work.  Some projects, however, will only be presented as watered-down versions.

Flexicurity: Eight common principles on flexicurity are likely to pass unanimously, without discussion (EURACTIV 29/11/07). The draft acknowledges challenges to EU labour markets as identified by the Commission, but it stops short of defining a path to more efficient labour markets as proposed in the Commission’s Communication (EURACTIV 26/08/07).  

Supplementary pensions: As changes in labour markets force workers to move from one employer to another more frequently, the question of pension schemes offered by companies or on a per-branch basis becomes crucial. However, the right to transfer the equivalent of pension rights acquired under one scheme to another has been dropped, due namely to resistance from Germany and a Parliament vote which deleted all provisions with respect to transferability (EURACTIV 10/10/07). 

This left vesting conditions as the sole controversial issue in the proposal: From which age can workers acquire rights to supplementary pensions, and after how long an employment period? And will the proposal be effective in retrospect or not? The Commission proposal for a minimum age of 21 and a two-year vesting period met with fierce resistance from Germany, where the minimum age is 25 and the vesting period was only recently reduced from ten to five years. 

A compromise proposal by the Portuguese Presidency, which foresees a minimum age of 25 and a two-year vesting period, is set to find the necessary unanimity at the Council meeting.  

Temporary agency work: A deal was clinched last summer in order to overcome previous resistance, namely by the UK, against the principle of equal treatment of workers detached by temporary work agencies and those employed by the company they work for (EURACTIV 27/07/07). In exchange, the UK was offered other member states’ agreement on a more far-reaching liberalisation of the sector and the question of payment was excluded from the equal treatment principle. 

The agreement is, however, still not sure to find UK approval. On the other hand, the UK is unlikely to attract a blocking minority sufficient to kill the proposal. 

John Monks, Secretary-General of ETUC, the Euopean Trade Union Confedration, said: "By approving the proposed Temporary Agency Workers Directive, you can extend much needed protection to several million vulnerable workers. You can revive the idea of an effective Social Europe. You can give reassuring substance to flexicurity." 

Monks added: "Germany should not bow to threats from the UK that such approval would put the EU Reform Treaty at risk. This directive would be a positive, not a negative step for Europe in the eyes of working people. I applaud the efforts of our affiliates in the UK, Germany, Ireland and Malta to have their governments see sense."

UK Liberal MEP Liz Lynne said: "This will be a nail-biting time for Gordon Brown - he has sought to keep the European Union out of the headlines, but with the UK looking increasingly isolated in the Council of Ministers there is a real possibility he will loose the battle against damaging EU plans to regulate temporary recruitment agencies and changes to existing rules on working time." Lynne added: "The Government must stand firm. There is one thing Brown can't rely on should any deal be reached and legislation returns to the European Parliament - the support of his own Labour MEPs."  

The Social Platform, representing European Social NGOs, criticised that "some key challenges are still insufficiently or not addressed" in the flexicurity principles. In an Open Letter to the Council, the Social Platform said that "the dominant male-breadwinner model is not sufficiently challenged in the flexicurity principles". The NGO alliance added that "the fight against discrimination in the labour market cannot be completely left out of a flexicurity approach as it is now", saying that "there is a need for an additional principle for those furthest away from the labour market". 

Ann Swain, Chief Executive of ATSCo, the Association of Technology Staffing Companies, said that the Directive on temporary agency work "takes no account of the realities of the agency working market". She added: "Temporary work does not equal low quality work; it can be a lifestyle choice by entrepreneurs. Highly-skilled temporary IT contractors want and need flexibility to work on short, cutting-edge projects which are vital to the development of European companies. This flexibility allows them to take their skills where they are most needed, and to have time to pursue training to renew their skill set. They neither want, nor need further protection than that which they currently enjoy."  

Employment ministers are coming together to find agreement on some of the Barroso Commission's key reforms with respect to labour markets and social security systems. Ambitious drafts on supplementary pension schemes and temporary agency work have been watered down, however, following resistance from Germany and the UK respectively. Employment Commissioner Vladimír Špidla's draft on flexicurity already had to be softened in 2006, due to pressure from other Commissioners and employers' organisations.

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