13th Apr 2024


Now's time for EU directive to let home workers 'disconnect'

  • People regularly working from home are six times more likely to work in their free time or are having their privacy routinely violated (Photo: Susanna Marsiglia)
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Social dialogue, said the late Jacques Delors, is "one of the foundations of a democratic society."

It was that conviction that led Delors, who began his career as a trade union representative, to make a summit of unions and employers one of his first acts as president of the European Commission.

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The meeting he called at the Val Duchesse castle in Brussels on 31 January in 1985 came against a familiar background.

Rapid technological advances were changing the world of work and there was growing global competition. There were calls for Europe to copy the ultra-liberal growth model which appeared to be successful in the US.

Delors' instead set Europe on its own path, creating the single — and social — market. Under this model, he developed instruments and processes so that change could happen in a managed way through social dialogue between trade unions and employers.

That first Val Duchesse summit also marked the end of a long crisis between the social partners. The parties committed to initiate a process of dialogue. It took months, but at the end of the year the social partners agreed a joint union-employer position at European level on social dialogue and new technologies. Delors' hope was that this would one day evolve into European level collective bargaining agreements.

Our return to Val Duchesse on Wednesday (31 January) for another social summit could not be more timely.

It gives us an appropriate opportunity to reflect on and pay tribute to Delors and his legacy as the founding father of social Europe so soon after his passing.

There is also an urgent need for all parties to renew our joint commitment to social dialogue.

In June last year, three European employers' organisations signed a social dialogue work programme with the ETUC which included a commitment to negotiate a legally-binding agreement on telework to be implemented in the form of a directive.

This would have ensured respect for the workers right to disconnect, something made urgent by the pandemic, when millions of people were rushed into makeshift telework situations.

While lockdowns have thankfully left our lives, telework is here to stay and needs to be managed in a way that works to the benefit of both people as well as companies.

We can't continue with a situation in which people regularly working from home are six times more likely to work in their free time or are having their privacy routinely violated.

However, after negotiations lasting more than a year, two of the three employers' organisations refused to put any text forward and the EU Commission must now take up the initiative and make a proposal for a directive.

Social dialogue that does not deliver cannot become the norm.

From climate change to artificial intelligence, there are profound changes taking place now with impacts on the world of work that need to be managed through social dialogue.

In Europe, both unions and employers are agreed on the need to decarbonise the economy. But we can only achieve this in a fair way by getting round the table to agree on practicalities like anticipating and managing change, paid time off for workers who need to re-skill for new, green job opportunities.

We both want to see artificial intelligence used to increase productivity and improve working conditions. And the evidence shows that this is done best, risks are avoided, and the benefits are shared more fairly when change is introduced in agreement with workers and their trade unions through collective bargaining.

The alternative is a repeat of the reckless deindustrialisation policies that led to so much industrial conflict in the 1980s.

Delors' vision for social dialogue at the heart of the single market was and still is the answer.

That is why the European Trade Union Confederation has called for Wednesday's summit to deliver concrete outcomes that will lead to stronger social dialogue across Europe.

This includes the establishment of an alert system to help address problems and the appointment of a European Social Dialogue envoy, who would promote social dialogue and help solve any breakdowns, such as the one which we have witnessed recently over the telework agreement.

The summit is the occasion to reiterate the joint commitment to fully respect the prerogatives of trade unions and employers' organisations as the actors for social dialogue. The commission also needs to match its ambitions with the adequate political and financial support for social dialogue at all levels.

The benefits of a properly functioning system of social dialogue would not only be felt in the workplace but in the economy and in society more generally.

As we look ahead to forthcoming European elections, it is worth recalling that democracy at work leads to increased democratic involvement outside of work.

Social dialogue is the anthesis of the winner-take-all approach which has created the disillusionment on which the far-right thrive.

Faced with that rising threat, we need to ensure all the foundations of our democracy are strong. And as Delors envisioned, that must include social dialogue.

We need to return to the vision of a social Europe that he set out in Val Duchesse 39 years ago.

This can and must be the moment we start to get European social dialogue back on track.

Author bio

Esther Lynch is the general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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