Everybody at the European level agrees that we need more quality jobs to build momentum for recovery and climb out of the years of crisis. But what does this actually mean? And what realistic plans are in place to achieve growth that is ‘rich in quality jobs’?
Late last year, the European Trade Union Confederation adopted a working definition of quality jobs. This six-point framework is designed to serve as a roadmap towards these jobs by identifying what features they need to qualify as such. They are not exhaustive and, of course, some features are more important than others for different groups of workers in different sectors, but at least for the first time we have a working definition broadly agreed by the European trade union movement. Now it is surely time for the EU institutions to do the same.
The social challenge
Despite the welcome headline figures – unemployment down, employment up – there is a quiet jobs crisis going on throughout EU member states. Perhaps this can best be seen in the figures for total hours worked across Europe: These clearly demonstrate that despite growth in the labour market and increasing employment rates, job hours and volume of work have still not recovered from the economic crisis. Indeed, far from satisfying the EU’s declared ambition, the growth is job-poor.
Source: Benchmarking Working Europe 2019, ETUI
The thinner spread of available work raises very serious questions about the economic and social models member states are built on. Ambitious objectives of the past such as ‘full employment’ have given way to precarious job creation as risk is transferred onto labour. Practices in the so-called ‘gig economy’ are a blatant example of this process, but so too are increases in self-employment and other non-standard employment arrangements.
The results are exactly what the trade union movement warned of: in-work at-risk-of-poverty is up; more people are scraping by on second and even third jobs; collective bargaining is undermined. And these social problems lead to political ones too. It is no coincidence that the growth of populism and nationalism in Europe has accompanied this casualisation of work and the insecurity it has brought.
Taking work quality forward
The ETUC’s definition is designed to raise the profile of work quality as a social and economic policy priority and to guide core ETUC employment policy demands both inside and outside the annual European Semester cycle. It covers a broad gamut of ETUC priorities under the six points:
- Good wages
- Work security via standard employment and access to social protection
- Lifelong learning opportunities
- Good working conditions in safe and healthy workplaces
- Reasonable working time with good work-life balance
- Trade union representation and bargaining rights
The demand for job quality is now critical for employment policy tools and co-ordination strategies to address the profound challenges that workers are facing. We have endured a long period of hardship when the demand for higher work quality initiatives took second place to tackling rocketing unemployment figures. The EU’s institutions can no longer hide behind these arguments or make weak excuses about competences.
If now is not the time to focus on creating good quality jobs, workers in Europe are entitled to ask when exactly it will be.
We are inviting all potential partners at EU level, including the European Commission, the political groups we collaborate with and employers’ organisations to adopt our six-point definition or, alternatively, to articulate what they consider to be ‘quality jobs’. The key point is to explore together, in the spirit of social partnership, how to create more and better jobs for all.
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Pursuing work quality: putting words into action in the Semester 2019
The ETUC definition is designed to adapt to the needs of different economies, different sectors and different member states. Some challenges are greater on some European labour markets than others.
From stagnating wage growth in many member states to the shortage of standard open-ended contracts, the Semester 2019 should focus on addressing social problems arising from the growth in low-wage, ultra-flexible employment regimes. Standard employment contracts – i.e. full-time, open-ended ones – continue to be elusive for large numbers of Europeans. This is especially true for young workers, women, and many workers with a migrant background. This is a direct consequence of the deregulation of labour markets in response to the crisis and implemented, in many cases, via previous Semester cycles.
Access to personal development and skills acquisition continues to be a major source of inequality between member states, with wide gaps between public investment in lifelong learning on one hand and access of opportunities for workers on the other. Autonomy remains a widely overlooked principle in guiding lifelong learning policies. As a result, too many people have access only to learning opportunities that serve employers’ requirements, rather than their own ambitions.
Excellent working conditions with world-leading occupational health and safety standards should be the ambition of all member states. Yet thousands of workers die prematurely every year because of workplace accidents and illnesses; many others endure hazardous conditions. According to Eurostat, in 2015 alone there were 3.2 million accidents at work, 3,800 of them fatal.
Working time is an increasing challenge, too. While total hours worked have not recovered post-crisis, at the same time some people are suffering burnout from excessive workload. The ETUC is therefore launching a discussion on working time and how work can be spread more equitably. The Commission should do so too and address the issue in Country Reports 2019.
Finally, trade unions active in robust sectoral and cross-sectoral collective bargaining and social dialogue remain the biggest indicator of strong yet sustainable economies. The Commission has made a reasonable effort to relaunch social dialogue in the last few years. But the Semester 2019 must build on this to correct low levels of collective bargaining in some member states and the indirect influence of labour codes in obstructing the growth of social dialogue. When national labour market institutions are ‘reformed’ in ways which exclude trade unions, it cannot be claimed that there is no appetite for social dialogue and collective bargaining. These are fundamental democratic processes and they must be sustained and extended through the rigorous pursuit of wider collective bargaining coverage. The idea that strong social dialogue can exist alongside weak trade unions is absurd.
Katja Lehto-Komulainen is deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. She was previously head of international affairs at the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK).