Buffeted by the pandemic and by populism, the EU needs the European Pillar of Social Rights to become a solid anchor of security for all.
Next week, the European Commission is set to unveil its Action Plan for putting the European Pillar of Social Rights into practice. The European Trade Union Confederation is pressing hard for an ambitious plan, which provides the means to achieve and monitor tangible social progress.
The EPSR was adopted by member states in 2017 but—partly due to the social and economic damage inflicted by the pandemic—European citizens might be forgiven for wondering what difference it has made to their lives. It was the former commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who announced the initiative in his 2015 State of the Union address. The text was finally proclaimed by European Union leaders at the Social Summit in Gothenburg.
The ETUC played a major role in developing its 20 principles, which we see as crucial to strengthening the EU’s social dimension—ensuring that the welfare of workers and their families is not subordinated to the economic interests of the single market.
Legal force lacking
Despite its legalistic language, the pillar however lacks legal force: the principles do not give direct rights to any individual. It has been described as an agenda, ‘a compass for a renewed process of upward convergence towards better working and living conditions in Europe’.
The ETUC sees it as a guiding strategic framework, enabling the commission to bring forward legislation and other initiatives to strengthen social wellbeing. But at a time when the EU is under intense scrutiny for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis, implementing the pillar in a way that touches people’s lives is a question of credibility for European institutions and member-state governments in the eyes of their citizens. There is no time to waste.
The ETUC has laid out its full expectations on a dedicated website. The EPSR must lead to long-awaited improvements, with upward convergence across the EU on labour rights, working conditions, wages and social-protection systems. It needs to deliver on the promises of strengthening social dialogue, collective bargaining and workplace democracy. Above all, it must be an integral part of the EU’s broad, post-pandemic recovery strategy.
The ETUC fought hard to get the pillar included as one of the main criteria for evaluating eligible investments under the Recovery and Resilience Facility regulation. This is vital, since green and digital investments have numerical targets set by member states, but this approach has not been applied in the social domain. Social objectives must be at the heart of the EU’s recovery plan, and social dialogue and consultation with trade unions must be a cornerstone of future action.
Women worst affected
The first priority in the wake of the pandemic will be to preserve jobs. The Action Plan should ensure that emergency measures to protect workers during the crisis continue for as long as necessary and cover all those affected, including precarious and self-employed workers. It should take account of the fact that women have been worst affected by the pandemic, because of the jobs they fill and their additional responsibilities at home. It should provide special support for younger workers, who have suffered disproportionately as a result of Covid-19.
The ETUC has listed 12 priorities to kick-start progress towards a fairer and better society as Europe emerges from the pandemic, including ten urgent, ‘flagship’ initiatives. A number of these will require EU legislation to be effective.
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For example, the long-awaited directive on gender-pay transparency is vital to counter the unfairness of women and men doing jobs of equal value but women receiving lower wages. As more and more people are likely to continue working digitally from home even when the pandemic subsides, the legal ‘right to disconnect’—recently backed by MEPS—is needed to achieve better work-life balance and avoid the stress of 24-hour availability. We also want to see further action to limit dangerous carcinogens or mutagens in the workplace: nobody should be exposed to life-threatening chemicals at work or die doing their job.
The Recovery and Resilience Facility focuses on preparing European economies and societies for ‘the challenges and opportunities of the green and digital transitions’. The social pillar must guarantee that those transitions are fair for workers and their families.
That means, among other things, investment in education, skills and training at all levels. Students hit by school closures must have the digital equipment and support to ensure their life-chances are not permanently damaged, and lifelong learning should be a universal right to enable workers to adapt to changing conditions.
The Action Plan needs sufficient funding to achieve its ends and it is in the interests of companies and investors to play their part. The EU should also be allowed to raise resources for the recovery on financial markets, as it did for the SURE employment-support programme.
The list of priorities for the Action Plan does not stop there. But what Europe needs now is high-level political commitment to social objectives, to be achieved through setting and monitoring goals and indicators at every level, in co-operation with trade unions and employers (as social partners) and forming a key component in the European Semester.
In the post-pandemic era, the pillar should work towards a better and broader economic and social governance, which builds sustainable growth and wellbeing for all. Ideally, we want the pillar to be incorporated in the EU treaties, to reorientate the fiscal compass, so that the EU can become a real social-market economy as the treaties affirm.
In the meantime, the ETUC is involving its members in reaching out to promote the EPSR and explain the relevance of the Action Plan to workers across Europe. We want people to take ownership of the next steps so that the European Pillar of Social Rights is no longer an abstract ideal but a practical roadmap to a fairer society.
The ETUC is also building alliances with supportive institutions, governments and stakeholders, to ensure that an ambitious declaration will be adopted at the EU Social Summit in Porto in May, with all institutions and social partners committed to sound and effective implementation.