23rd Jan 2020

EU moots new labour laws

The European Commission will on Wednesday (21 November) launch a public debate on whether the EU needs new labour laws to define a 'worker' in the EU or minimum rights for workers with non-standard contracts.

EU social policy and employment commissioner Vladimir Spidla is to present a green paper - seen by EUobserver - aimed at starting a four-month long discussion on how the bloc's labour laws should reflect the growing variety of work contracts being used in Europe.

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The paper has been delayed and substantially re-drafted, mainly due to complaints from business for its negative language on atypical forms of employment - like fixed term or on-call contracts, as well as self-employment.

The final version points out that new forms of work arrangements - also including freelance or temporary agency workers - have increased by 4 percent to almost 40 percent in 2005 across the EU.

Since 2000, more jobs have been created in the form of part-time rather than full time standard work contracts, particularly in the case of women.

People also increasingly end up being "self-employed," mainly in sectors such as agriculture, retailing, construction and personal services - like subcontracting or outsourcing.

This tendency is particularly significant in the UK, Ireland, Portugal, the Netherlands, as well as in Poland, Hungary, and the three Baltic states, with 15 percent (31 million) of people self-employed in the EU as a whole last year.

The commission paper acknowledges that "such jobs may serve as a stepping-stone enabling people, often those with particular difficulties, to enter the workforce."

But it also warns that "There is a risk that part of the workforce gets trapped in a succession of short-term, low quality jobs with inadequate social protection leaving them in a vulnerable position."

Legal definitions

The EU executive is asking member states, employers and trade unions whether it should come up with new legal steps to avoid these tendencies and to protect those working under such arrangements.

It has raised the possibility of introducing more EU-wide legal definitions of labour-law related terms, such as "worker" and "self-employment" – as well as "floor of rights" as the "minimum requirements on the working conditions of all workers regardless of the form of their work contract."

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is supportive of the idea.

"People are travelling from one EU country to another with question marks arising about their status because of the national differences in the labour law, so more clarity would definitely help," John Monks, the ETUC secretary-general told EUobserver.

"We have already seen some progress concerning the recognition of qualifications so this would be another step to help the labour mobility," he added.

But Jeanne Schmitt from UNICE, the biggest pan-European business federation, disagrees.

"We don't see any need for introducing such new definitions or any other EU labour laws as it is the sphere of national competence," she argues, adding that national definitions and rules reflect the economic situation, reforms and traditions in concrete member states.

"We should follow the EU laws we already have and not create new ones," said Ms Schmitt, adding that the current division in the EU over working time rules proves that it is better to respect national differences rather than impose EU-wide solutions in this area.

Ms Schmitt also suggested the commission's earlier drafts of the labour law paper were biased against atypical and flexible work contracts and self-employment - despite their contribution to the overall benefits they bring in creating jobs.


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