21st Feb 2024

The missing metric in EU labour policy: job quality

  • Working conditions have deteriorated sharply in recent decades in France, Greece, and Spain (Photo: Unsplash)
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Working conditions across the EU have deteriorated sharply in recent decades, notably in countries such as France, Greece and Spain, according to a new study by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).

The analysis covers 2005 to 2021, taking into account the impact of the 2008 crisis and the Covid pandemic, and measures aspects such as the quality of income, forms of employment, work-life balance, working conditions or skills and career development.

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Its main conclusion? EU labour market policies lack metrics on job quality.

After the euro crisis, policies on labour market deregulation and austerity were implemented. And references to, or action on, quality in work disappeared from EU communications, guidelines, and policies.

The norm was to measure the quantity of jobs in terms of employment and unemployment rates in the EU, while quality was forgotten.

"They [the European Commission] did not pay attention to what kind of jobs they were creating, whether they were precarious or how much people earned in those jobs," ETUI senior researcher Agnieszka Piasna told EUobserver.

Now, also taking into account the impact of the digital and green transitions, the number of working hours is much lower than before the Covid-19 crisis, so the result is that we have more part-time, precarious and gig jobs.

"Without looking at the quality of jobs and focusing only on measures of quantity, we ignore the real impact of jobs on people's livelihoods," Piasna stressed.

To neglect these aspects is to perpetuate the vicious circle of job creation, the ETUI researcher noted. "If we continue down the path of creating more unstable, low-paid jobs, domestic demand will not have a robust, long-term impact on Europe's economic recovery."

Nor will it prepare the labour market to be resilient to future shocks, and skills development alone will not address these challenges at their root.

Piasna also makes a moral case in the wake of growing digitalisation and artificial intelligence: "Do we want to go down the path of the lowest labour cost, of displacing workers and having only algorithms and gig workers driving the economy?"

Who is lagging behind?

Overall, job quality is below the EU average in central, eastern and southern Europe. Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania are the worst performers according to the ETUI's job quality index, again highlighting persistent regional differences within the EU-27.

(Photo: European Trade Union Institute (ETUI))

The immediate explanation in recent years is that the foundations for quality job creation were not well laid in the aftermath of the euro crisis.

The unsuccessful labour competition route followed by these countries is also reflected in their low ranking.

With EU accession and access to the free movement of labour within the single market, these countries lost many workers in key sectors such as healthcare to other EU states offering higher wages and better working conditions.

By comparison, countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Austria are at the top of the job quality index. Among the main reasons, Piasna points to the greater representation of workers in forums and works councils in these countries.

"Their voices are heard much more, they are involved in decision-making processes, and on average this is also associated with better working conditions at country level," she noted.

The quality of employment varies considerably between regions, but also between men and women.

Women perform better in only two areas of the index: income quality and quality of working time and work-life balance.

The first does not measure the level of income, only its adequacy and predictability to make ends meet. The second is mainly due to shorter working hours than men, according to the study.

Meanwhile, men are less likely to be in temporary or part-time jobs, have better job security, working conditions, skills and career development.

Overall, "vulnerable women in the labour market have worse outcomes than men", notes Piasna, meaning that they still suffer from a higher accumulation of disadvantages.

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