Social Europe and the Changing World of Labour: for Rights, Rules and Results
by Luc Cortebeeck (ILO) & Chris Serroyen (ACV-CSC Belgium)
Triple P Europe
‘Social Europe’ is a phrase that has always sounded a little strange to me. We don't say ‘social Belgium’ or ‘social Flanders’ either, do we? Europe will always be many things simultaneously, never merely ‘social’ alone. What matters, is having a balance between economic, social and ecological objectives. Perhaps even more so, the intertwining of these, because the 3 P's of People, Planet and Profit mutually reinforce each other. All too often, these objectives are portrayed as at odds with one another. Thankfully, less and less so in the rhetoric on long-term sustainability, which is already a step in the right direction. However, when it comes to concrete actions ─ ‘walk the talk’ ─ in the present and in the near future, they are still thought of as conflicting.
I emphasise this balance, because we shouldn't project unrealistic expectations onto Europe either. The disenchantment with the European project is large enough as it is. We already know that Europe can be a large projection screen onto which countries and regions are all too happy to project their own failures. We don't need a second projection screen for all the unbridled ambitions ─ and consequently the predictable failures, too ─ as further feeding ground for the anti-European populism. Restoring the balance in Europe, in that Triple P triangle, is already ambitious enough. That is, if the intention is for this balance to become more than just a sales pitch.
Social Triple A
A sales pitch is what it looked like for a long time. First with the famous speech by Jean-Claude Juncker before the European Parliament on 22 October 2014, which focused on a "Social Triple A Europe”. His words were later also adopted in the Five Presidents' Report of June 2015, and later still in the conclusions of the European Council of 7 December 2015. Not to mention with the grandstanding about "equal pay for equal work in the same workplace" and a halt to zero-hour contracts. But none of the talk was followed up with concrete policies, and scepticism increased.
On the plus side, the economic and budgetary discipline was relaxed. The realisation had set in that the harsh budgetary measures threatened to only deepen the financial crisis and were stifling the frail economic recovery. The country-specific recommendations became a bit more balanced, and countries such as Germany, having budgetary surpluses and a sluggish increase in wages, were urged to invest in infrastructure and improve purchasing power. The recommendations also left more room for the Member States to shape the solutions themselves. And with more social accents, too. To top it off, there were processes of mutual solidarity in sudden crises, particularly within the monetary union, balancing between the tension fields of responsibility and solidarity.
It was a step in the right direction, although there were legitimate complaints that it was not enough and came too late. The European Trade Union Movement's first response to those complaints was always that economic governance structure needed thorough improvement; with a social scoreboard in addition to the macroeconomic scoreboard. And not just a flexible application of the budgetary standards, but also structural adjustments to allow room for investments ─ particularly social investments.
Unfortunately, the question of whether this would win back the hearts of Europeans was scarcely asked. However important and necessary the debate on macroeconomic and budgetary discipline is, ultimately, that discussion is held far above the heads of the average citizen. Imagine trying to explain the complex process of the European Semester. If that proves a challenge, how then are you going to convey that the adjustments will benefit them in the long run?
Social Europe on hold
How did we convince the average citizen of the use and necessity of Europe before? With Europe as a project of peace, of course. Although that was easier to do with the generations who had experienced the war than with the generations thereafter, who only know the war from stories and history lessons. However, as Belgian Christian Trade Union Movement ACV-CSC and as European Trade Union Movement, we would also point out European success stories regarding enforceable social rights and rules. Such as, how Sabena flight attendant Gabrielle Defrenne enforced equal pay for women and men through the European Court of Justice in 1978. Or how the Posted Workers Directive of 1996 helped to fight social dumping. And how the Collective Redundancies Directive came about in 1998 after Renault Vilvoorde closed down.
Sadly, it somewhat ended there. Undoubtedly, there were some highlights after 1998 as well. But you must admit that the delivery of a ‘social Europe’ became quite limited from then on. Time after time, we were told that it was necessary to press ‘pause’ for a while. At the end of the last century, the monetary union was established. That required substantial efforts, in Belgium particularly in the field of budgetary restructuring and labour cost competitiveness. After the euro was introduced in 2002, we had to deal with the enlargement of the European Union and were told that it was now a matter of allowing the new countries and candidate countries to catch up, so we should put our social ambitions on the back burner for now. And when Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007, the financial crisis erupted. Not only did this lead to the third shutdown of European social policy in a row, it threw the scales of Europe completely out of balance when the neoliberal buzzards of the ECFIN sector made their arrogant power grab. They didn't even try to conceal the fact that they were out to structurally weaken the position of employees, through so-called structural reforms, which increasingly undermined public confidence in the European project.
The recovery of the European project will have to be achieved through decreased economic orthodoxy and more balance in macroeconomic and budgetary surveillance. But that will not be enough. If Europe wants to win back the hearts of its citizens, it will also have to present tangible progress in the area of social rights and rules, with social objectives that are as concrete as the economic and budgetary objectives. The ACV-CSC summarised this as the “Triple R Approach”, focused on Rights, Rules and Results.
Firstly, to strengthen social rights: expand existing rights, introduce new rights and ensure a better enforceability of those rights. Secondly: more social regulations for governments and companies, with better guarantees for the enforcement thereof. This as a necessary complement to a rights-based approach, because the drawback of that approach is that individuals and groups are personally responsible for ensuring enforcement of their rights, whether through legal proceedings or otherwise. And thirdly, all of this must be focused on concrete results that meet the SMART criteria which management courses have been using for some time. There are several versions of this acronym out there, but we prefer this one: Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic and Timely. This means the logic of unambiguous and clearly formulated objectives, with quantified targets and with an adequate system for monitoring and measuring both the progress and the distance to those targets. Objectives that are both ambitious and realistic, not in a pragmatic sense, but in the sense that you have to formulate your ambitions in such a way that the best strategy makes them achievable. And all of this should have a clear timeline: what is our deadline, and do we want to determine interim milestones?
It is precisely that approach that the ACV-CSC and the European Trade Union Movement are increasingly embracing, but which is also very much in line with our international endeavours, especially those within the International Labour Organization. Because the ILO is all about a rights-based approach. These rights are enshrined in the ILO conventions and supplemented by recommendations for their adequate implementation. A threefold mechanism is in place to ensure their enforcement: the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, the Committee on the Application of Standards, and the Committee on Freedom of Association for employers and employees.
The Pillar of Social Rights
We are excited that Europe has begun to reconnect with the rights- and rules-based approach, so that the initial rhetoric of a Triple A social Europe can become reality. The March 2016 consultation paper for the European Pillar of Social Rights was still met with some mistrust and a lot of scepticism. Rightfully so, because it looked more like a letter of intent that was designed to hide the social shutdown. It focused strongly on the eurozone, which prompted concerns of a social two-speed Europe. And it raised the question of how useful that is, if the machinery of the economic and budgetary discipline continues to run undisturbed at the same time. The consultation paper did also contain the intention to establish a social scoreboard, in addition to the scoreboard for the macroeconomic imbalances of the European Semester, but it was unclear whether this would bring any balance in the prevailing policies at all. And criticism grew even louder after the British majority voted for Brexit in June 2016, and as anti-European populism began to take hold in many other countries as well, often of the extreme-right kind. This declaration of intent for the European Pillar of Social Rights was perhaps the only thing possible at that time, but not what we were hoping for in order to win back the hearts for the European project.
The European Commission may have recognised this too, because the plans it presented a year later, on 26 April 2017, addressed all those concerns much better. Not only did they include a bold proposal for an Interinstitutional Proclamation on the European Pillar of Social Rights, but also a first set of ideas for new social regulations: regarding the written information on employment relationships and regarding the leave arrangements for a better work-life balance. A consultation was initiated on better protection for the self-employed and non-standard forms of work, and the announced Social Scoreboard was given tangible form. In November 2017, the European Pillar of Social Rights was proclaimed in Gothenburg. On 13 March 2018, a draft recommendation on access to social protection for the self-employed and non-standard forms of work was added in the shape of the Fairness Package, as was a proposal for the establishment of a European Labour Authority to better coordinate the fight against social fraud.
Unfortunately, we can't elaborate on all of those initiatives here. By the way, at the time this text is delivered, at the evening of the EPSCO-Council on the 6 December 2018, it is unclear ─ apart from the Gothenburg declaration ─ what the fate of each of these new initiatives will be under the (worrisome) Austrian Presidency.
The International and European Trade Union Movement had hoped for more, of course. But at the same time, this is also more than we had dared hope for two years ago. We are very grateful that European Commissioner Marianne Thyssen took the lead for the transposition of the European Social Pillar in new legislative initiatives. Especially if you look at it in the context of the adaptation of the Posted Workers Directive, with the ‘bonus’ that the European Council was reprimanded by the European Parliament for excluding the transport sector. By now, we have also noted that the European Commission kept its word and has incorporated the European Pillar of Social Rights, and the Social Scoreboard in particular, in the country reports and the country-specific recommendations as part of the 2018 European Semester. Although, it is still not very clear how this works behind the scenes. The Netherlands received a great overall social score, especially when compared to Belgium, but also a stern slap on the wrist – through the country-specific recommendations – for its derailing of flexibility and precariousness.
We could take the easy road now by cynically dismissing that progress, given the many uncertainties about the end result. However, we wouldn’t feel right about that: we also look at that delivery in relation to what little ‘social Belgium’ and ‘social Flanders’ are delivering at the moment, not to mention the rest of the world. Sure, the European Pillar of Social Rights is just a declaration. And sure, it contains many rights and principles that were already laid down in other documents. But if you look at those twenty principles up close, you will see that, little by little, some boundaries are shifting. What’s more, that this stepping stone offers a basis for working with like-minded people to convert the Pillar into even more enforceable rights; as a work agenda for the coming years. By the way, if the plan which is on the table now is no big deal, then why did European employers fight it from the outset ─ refusing any kind of social dialogue ─ if not as a delaying tactic to postpone the issue until after the European elections?
We should also resist judging the merits based on the Belgian social acquis, whether federal or regional. What might not look like progress here, could very well be progress in other countries. A more level social playing field like that could also be beneficial for Belgium. We should remind ourselves that the anchoring of existing Belgian rights on a European level might soon protect their decline on a Belgian level. Who would have thought that we would be needing the European 48-hour working week limit and Convention 1 of the ILO to prevent worse from happening in terms of ‘flexibility’ in Belgium?
Europe and the International Values
At a global level, it works the same. The ILO, based on ratified conventions, has to call the Member States to order when they are taking steps backward. Moreover, European and national judges use the ILO as a reference in disputes about the application of European and national rights. Incidentally, we notice that the ILO increasingly needs to caution EU countries and EU bodies for violating the ILO standards. Take Ireland for instance. After they were placed under supervision following the financial audit, they were pressured by the Troika to put an end to the collective agreements for self-employed workers in the audio-visual and graphic design industry, because these were in conflict with the European competition law that aims to ban these types of ‘price cartels’. Ireland was issued a firm reprimand in 2016, because the right of collective bargaining as a fundamental labour standard of the ILO applies to all employed persons, including the self-employed. Or take Greece, where the Troika completely disrupted the collective bargaining system and which also received a scolding at the International Labour Conference this year. We are starting to get used to it, but it was a bit of a shock when this all began. Not in the least because the supervisory mechanisms of the ILO were primarily seen as leverage to get a- and anti-social states outside of Europe in line or to show developing countries the way.
Extreme Policies lead to Extreme Reactions
It led to harsh accusations of former director general of the ILO, Somavia, who at the 2012 ILO conference argued that the unilateral austerity policy is “undermining those social values which Europe pioneered”. “The European countries that have been subject to the strictest conditions are starting to backslide on the ILO’s core values on which Europe used to be a leader,” he continued, “and in particular the culture of social dialogue, the foundation for the post-war reconstruction of Europe is being discarded or weakened." To which he added a stern warning: “Giving confidence exclusively to financial operators while losing the trust of people not only deepens the vicious downward economic spiral but also opens the way to extreme solutions which I am sure European democracies do not want to revisit. Extreme policies produce extreme reactions.”
Six years later, we must admit that he wasn't far off. Especially when overseeing the electoral battlefield caused by right-wing populism today. By now, the Austrian government has a party that was founded by former Nazis, in Italy a party can at least be said to have moved very strongly towards the extreme-right. It should all act as an invitation for reasonably-minded employers to join civil society, and trade unions in particular, in restoring confidence in politics and in business. This should be done through restoring social rights, instead of bluntly rejecting them.
ILO and UN Verification Process
One should be able to expect of Europe to behave according to the ILO standards. Not just in its external policies, from trade and investment agreements to development aid, but just as much in its internal policies. And we're not just talking about the red lines for economic governance, but also about the roll-out of Europe's social policy. To give you an example: we were happy to read in the Fairness Package that Europe is requesting that the Member States ratify the relevant ILO conventions regarding social security, should they not have done this already. But why, then, do we still have a draft recommendation for the expansion of social protection that does not mention family benefits or survivor’s pension, which are nevertheless included in these conventions? It seems to me that an ILO verification procedure is suitable for all elements of European social policy. At the same time, I hope that Europe will continue to play a leading role in further developing the ILO-standards and the Standards System. This, too, is European social policy.
This European commitment to the ILO becomes even more important with the new generation of global development goals, the 2030 SDGs, because there is an increased focus on decent work, social security and realisation of fundamental labour standards. Except, it is still far from clear what the European course is going to be, and in particular its internal policies. Those SDGs are now three years old, which means that 1/5 of their term has already passed. Yet as we speak, there is still no sign of debate, unless you count the multi-stakeholder forum for the 2030 SDGs or, behind the scenes, for the successor of Europe 2020. It is good that the European Pillar of Social Rights already effectively establishes a link with the 2030 SDGs. But we are still far from having a thorough European debate (that uses the aforementioned Triple R approach of rights, rules and results) to determine how each of the sustainability goals will be implemented in internal European policies; starting with a new set of quantitative European goals for 2030.
Just like on a Belgian and Flemish level, we are seeing on a European level a great deal of attention for the indicators, for celebrating the SDG goals that are already achieved today, and for sharing best practices. But what we should be concerned with are the quantitative goals we want to achieve: to transpose them into rights, rules and other policy initiatives and, to some extent, the European multi-annual budget.
To give you an example: by 2030, SDG1 aims to reduce poverty by half. That is not the same as reducing the number of people at risk of poverty and exclusion by 20 million. Not only because of the ambition behind the quantitative goal, but also because according to the SMART method mentioned earlier, a different indicator is needed. The current European indicator is ambiguous because it merges poverty and unemployment. So, what is the solution then? Simply halve the number of people who don’t meet the European poverty treshold, which is set at 60% of the median income. Preferably with an interim objective for 2024, because nothing says ‘no strings attached’ like objectives that fall under the responsibility of a following government, European Council or Commission. Next, this should be translated into the right of a decent income, on a European and/or national level. Or rather, a minimum income that ensures a life in dignity in all stages of life, as it is now also described (better than before) in the Gothenburg declaration. Such an approach is not necessary or even possible for each objective or sub-objective, but should be used, preferably, as much as possible.
Europe and the Future of Work
The ILO will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. The flagship of this celebration will be the conclusion of the Future of Work discussion, probably a Centenary Declaration. This is being prepared in the Global Commission on the Future of Work, of which one of us is a member. The Commission will present the conclusions on 22 January 2019, ahead of the June 2019 International Labour Conference, and based on the assumption that national governments and social partners, and in particular the European Union, will pick them up.
The main points of this discussion are the wave of new technologies, and how they will thoroughly transform the world of work. ‘Disruption’, this is often called, usually by those who want to upset the current systems of social protection, even though we still know little about the impact and the rate of the developments. As it happens, these technological advancements are just one of the drivers, a fact that is underexposed in the European discussion about the future of work. The world of labour is transforming just as well because of ecological challenges (climate, environment, resource scarcity), demography (ageing, migration, fragmentation of families) and globalisation (and nowadays processes of deglobalisation too).
One thing we know for sure, is that we are seeing new forms of labour emerge, for instance in relation to the development of global supply chains. The latter alone is raising fundamental questions about social protection and, in particular, the adequate application of ILO standards, especially in a European context. That debate was late in getting started in Europe, because the digital agenda had a strong focus on the technological and economic aspects of the future of work and because political games were being played, including some political games about adding a third category in addition to the labour contract and the self-employed. But the new forms of labour are finally getting more attention in the context of the European Pillar of Social Rights. Except that this is mainly in terms of social security for now, even in the draft recommendation mentioned earlier. This is surprising, because it is high time that we look at how we can get employment protection for all these forms of employment, which are created by companies ─ and global service chains in particular ─ to escape labour law, collective labour agreements and trade union influence. With the added complication that the European Union and the Member States are stubbornly holding on to this classic definition of an employee (which is based on them legally being subordinate to an employer) in spite of Convention 198, the ILO recommendation on the employment relationship, which attaches greater importance to economic dependence. This narrow view is precisely why the amendment to the Written Statement Directive fails to meet the expectations. And even if we disregard the term ‘employees’, then at the very least ‘working’ persons are covered by ILO standards, such as the previously mentioned fundamental right to collective bargaining. This is something that Europe, and the DG for Competition too, cannot ignore.
It may also be expected from Europe to make a stronger fist against global supply chains. After the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, it should be clear that private CSR initiatives are not enough. And by the way, this is something that concerns us here as well, because we uncover scandalous situations in supply and service chains in Europe, too. Which is why the whole due diligence story should not be missing in a European debate about the future of work, this also following the UN forum on business and human rights. France has set the example, adopting a new corporate ‘duty of care’ law. Actions are being taken in the Netherlands and Germany as well. It was outlined excellently in a recent study by the Higher Institute of Labour Studies, funded by the ACV-CSC. But even better than a country-to-country approach is a coordinated European approach. Especially with regard to the 2030 SDGs, because they are often divided into two parts: how are we going to do this domestically, and how in developing countries? However, a third dimension is equally important: how can we crack down on actors here, both nationally and Europe-wide, for their actions elsewhere? Which, incidentally, also touches on policies regarding public procurement.
That's a lot of wishes for and expectations of Europe. But they are all the more justified now that the European Pillar of Social Rights is in place, and now that all Member States have committed themselves to the 2030 SDGs, and the commitments to the ILO on top of that. Wishes and expectations that could also adequately be responded to by a parliament, by national governments and by European Commissioners who in majority believe that things have to be different and better and who are willing to act accordingly. That is up to the voter to decide. We shouldn't be hesitant to say so to the voters. The Europe that you vote for, is the Europe that you get.
[Luc Cortebeeck was Chair of the Governing Body of ILO from June 2017 to June 2018 and is a member of the Global Commission on the Future of Work. Chris Serroyen is Director of the Research Department of ACV-CSC Belgium.]