Other available languages: none
[Check Against Delivery]
Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
Better working conditions for an inclusive growth
Conference on working conditions
Brussels, 28 April 2014
Ladies and gentlemen,
Welcome to this Conference on Working Conditions.
Protecting and promoting working conditions in the EU is about taking care of our human capital. We have a remarkable heritage of law and policies in Europe to ensure good working conditions that allow for high levels of satisfaction among employees.
However, there is also a fear, and a real risk, that working conditions will suffer in the wake of the economic crisis. Therefore I consider this conference very important and very timely.
Working conditions concern the daily lives of not only over 214 million European workers, but also of their families.
We are talking not only about how people are treated and what they receive at the workplace, but also about their contribution to the economy and to society.
The European Union’s goal is a win-win solution based on a relatively straightforward equation: the better working conditions are, the more committed people can be to economic success. Improving working conditions can enhance efficiency and productivity within the enterprise, and it can boost competitiveness in broader terms.
This is also recognised in the Europe 2020 Strategy which was designed to provide a basis for policies that would help create conditions for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
This Conference is a chance to discuss the importance of good working conditions for our long-term strategic goals, as we emerge from the Union’s worst-ever economic, financial, social and employment crisis. Our findings can be considered in view of the mid-term review of the Europe 2020 Strategy.
The Europe 2020 strategy was designed four years ago not just to coordinate Member States' socio-economic policies, but also in order to promote socio-economic convergence within the EU as a whole. To this end, it sets ambitious targets – among other things - for increasing employment and reducing poverty.
As we approach the middle of the decade, it is important to seriously reflect on how the Strategy and the associated policy coordination process have performed so far.
Therefore the Commission published on 5 March a Communication taking stock of the Europe 2020 strategy and the EU's performance vis-à-vis the targets.
In the coming weeks, the Commission will invite all Member States and relevant stakeholders to contribute to a public consultation which will focus on two aspects. First, drawing lessons from the first years of implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy; and second, providing input to shape the EU's post-crisis strategy. Following the public consultation, the Commission will present its proposals for the review of the Strategy in early 2015.
The Europe 2020 targets are well known and what they reveal after four years is probably not surprising.
The EU is on course towards meeting — or coming close to meeting — our headline target for education, but not those for employment or reducing poverty. The financial and economic crisis has significantly worsened the employment situation both quantitatively and qualitatively within Member States.
And the gap is widening between the Member States between those in the South or the periphery of the euro area and those in its core.
There were 6 million more people at risk of poverty in 2012 than in 2010 — an increase of about 2 percentage points.
But how has the crisis impacted on working conditions?
In most countries where data are available, we see that work-related stress has increased, for reasons such as greater job insecurity, more intensive work in some areas and countries, less mobility, and acceptance of part-time and temporary work out of necessity rather than choice.
Around 60% of temporary employees in 2012 wanted but could not find a permanent job. Striking a balance between work and private or family life has also become more difficult.
The results of the Commission’s latest Eurobarometer survey on working conditions published last week reflect this situation.
Only just over half of the respondents — 53% — say working conditions in their country are good, while 57% say working conditions have deteriorated over the last five years.
Findings tend to confirm an increase in work intensity. Stress clearly emerges as the most important perceived risk at work (for 53% of working respondents).
In addition, dissatisfaction regarding workload, pace of work and long working days (more than 13 hours) is more widespread than other issues such as lack of interest in the tasks or inadequate rest periods on a weekly or annual basis.
Regarding work organisation and work-life balance, 40% of respondents declare that they are not offered the possibility to use flexible working arrangements.
In the area of health and safety at work, less than one in three workers declared that there are measures in place at their workplace to address emerging risks, or directed to older and chronically ill workers.
Moreover, the survey reveals a split between the EU’s northern and southern Member States.
In the north, satisfaction with working conditions remains high overall.
Up to 94% of workers in Denmark express satisfaction with them!
In the south, in Greece and Spain in particular, the response reflects a sometimes far lower quality of employment.
82% of respondents in Greece and 76% in Spain feel working conditions are bad in their country.
A variety of factors can explain this divergence in satisfaction levels. These include not only the social and economic context influenced by the crisis but also more structural features in terms of social dialogue, social policies and labour law, which may be stronger or weaker depending on national situations across the EU.
Nevertheless, the survey findings create a dual challenge. How to ensure that working conditions which are globally favourable for workers and the economy alike, continue to be good and can further improve. And, how to ensure this across the whole EU,
This is no easy question, especially in the wake of the crisis. In order to find answers today, we will focus on some key issues, which should be considered high priority for our crisis response as well as our longer-term strategic goals.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the five workshops that will follow our keynote speakers, you will have the chance to discuss these main challenges in greater depth.
Health and safety: new strategic framework
The first workshop is on occupational safety and health. I think we could not have chosen a better day to discuss this topic as today is the World Day for Safety and Health at Work!
This is an area where the EU is a worldwide reference for all those who want to create healthier and safer workplaces, in order to improve job quality for the benefit of the workers as well as business.
There is sound evidence showing that investing in occupational safety and health is good business — not only for employees, but also for companies and the economy as a whole.
It also helps improve the sustainability of social protection systems, a key feature of the European social model.
As the EU working-age population shrinks, preventing accidents and diseases and promoting workers’ health is vital if they are to work for longer.
Lastly, an EU-wide framework for occupational safety and health is and will remain crucial to establishing a level playing field on the Single Market for all firms — regardless of their size, location or sector of activity.
This is especially true for small and medium-sized enterprises, which employ most of the EU’s active population.
Against that background, the workshop will consider the challenges and objectives for the strategic framework for worker health and safety for the forthcoming period, which will be presented by the Commission in June.
Implementing the Quality Framework for Anticipation and Restructuring
Today's second workshop will concern Anticipation and Restructuring.
While the European economy and welfare depend on successful businesses, the speed and magnitude of the current challenges (such as the crisis, globalisation and ageing) clearly hinder businesses’ and sectors' capacity to remain competitive and hence require them to anticipate and adapt more quickly.
If not managed properly, restructuring operations can have serious negative consequences for the surrounding economy and incur high social costs across regions -as we could witness during the worst years of the crisis.
Last December the Commission presented an EU Quality Framework for Anticipation and Restructuring, setting out good practice on early anticipation of human capital needs and subsequent investment to ensure companies' sustained competitiveness and to attenuate the impact of economic adaptation on workers.
Although the EU Quality Framework is not a legally binding instrument, it can encourage firms and other stakeholders, including the social partners, to cooperate in order to better anticipate skills and training needs, invest in human capital and manage restructuring in a socially responsible way.
The Commission will monitor the way the Quality Framework is applied and consider whether it needs reviewing by 2016.
I want to hear from companies, trade unions and experts at today's conference about how they intend to implement the EU Quality Framework, which is based on a thorough public consultation (Green Paper) and important input from the European Parliament and the social partners.
Implementing the Quality Framework for Traineeships
The third workshop will cover the Quality Framework for Traineeships.
Today, one in four traineeships offers substandard working conditions, which is simply not acceptable.
To help young people make the move from education to work smoothly, traineeships must involve high quality learning content and good working conditions.
The Council Recommendation on establishing a Quality Framework for Traineeships, agreed in March, provides a good basis for ensuring that all traineeships are useful stepping stones to getting a permanent job.
The next step is to put those principles into practice.
The workshop should provide guidance on implementing the Quality Framework properly and adapting national and regional legislation – and practice.
Reconciling work and private life
The fourth workshop is about reconciling work and private or family life.
This is about both men and women. However, if we look at the question from the perspective of the Europe 2020 strategy, we have to highlight the importance of increasing the female employment rate, especially (but not exclusively) in Southern and Eastern European Member States.
The road to success leads through getting the incentives right, and also a better reconciliation of work and private life. Progress should not only contribute to better economic performance but also demographic balance and gender equality.
As more and more women participate in the labour market and new generations enter Europe's workforce, diversity is increasingly – and rightly – seen as a success factor in business.
But greater labour market participation also implies greater challenge in terms of reconciling work and private life.
Technological progress and new ways of organising work and managing people are making this easier, together with the availability of affordable, good-quality care services.
On the other hand, individualised, non-standard working arrangements also bring challenges.
Blurring the boundary between work and home and reducing predictability can mean new risks and new sources of stress for workers as unmonitored working time increases.
The workshop will look at the impact on EU policy and standards in areas such as working time and see how the rules can adequately address the risks and take account of the effects on workers' rights.
We also would like to highlight the added value of the European Social Fund in this area.
Promoting decent working conditions in third countries
The fifth workshop relates to the EU’s efforts to promote decent working conditions in non-EU member countries.
At global level, the EU promotes Decent Work, a shared concept with the ILO, and in particular fundamental principles and rights at work, in all our policies.
Actively trying to improve working conditions across our partner economies across the world is something that the EU does for its own sake as well as for the sake of the partner countries.
A global social race to the bottom would be bad for the vast majority of the world's population. It would be also contrary to our values and to internationally recognised human rights.
Over the last few years, we have developed bilateral cooperation on occupational safety and health — not only with our traditional partners with industrial economies, such as the United States — but also with new partners with emerging economies, such as China and India.
More widely, we promote labour standards actively in trade and investment relations with our partners across the world.
Labour standards, including working conditions, are a precondition for granting Generalised System of Preferences status to beneficiary countries, and are part of our free trade agreements with our eastern neighbours, Central America, Columbia, Peru, Singapore and South Korea — to name just a few.
The EU initiative launched together with the Government of Bangladesh after the dreadful collapse of Rana Plaza one year ago - which we call a Compact - was a critical step forward to improve labour rights, working conditions and factory safety in the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh. The Compact is now being assessed and we will come soon (with Commissioner De Gucht) with details.
But clearly we still have a long way to go to achieve a level playing field on today’s global marketplace.
Stepping up cooperation with international organisations is therefore vital.
We contributed to the adoption of the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers to protect the working conditions of people not covered to date, and we advocate the ratification and effective implementation of other ILO conventions.
I personally attended the G20 Joint Labour and Finance Ministers meeting in Moscow in July 2013, where we agreed to promote strong, sustainable, balanced growth, focusing in particular on quality job creation and social cohesion.
Lastly, we help promote quality jobs and working conditions under the EU’s enlargement and neighbourhood policies.
Preparing candidate countries and potential candidates for accession offers a unique opportunity to promote reform and bring their provisions into line with EU policy and legislation.
There is no more topical issue than the situation in Ukraine when in it comes to the health and safety of workers, for instance miners. We have to prove that Ukraine is not a chess board for us, and the ultimate goal of deepening economic relations is to improve living and working conditions in Ukraine.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We can be proud of our achievements, but there is still a lot to do.
Let me just mention the Commission’s latest proposal on an EU platform on undeclared work, another phenomenon that negatively affects working conditions.
Preventing undeclared work can improve workers’ lives, foster social cohesion and bolster Member State finances.
Like the other topics covered by this Conference, our initiative against undeclared work illustrates the fact that improving working conditions is good for the individual, the economy as well as the society.
If the EU tackles the problem together, it can come out of the crisis stronger in terms of employment but also public finances.
Because of the long crisis, but also due to external factors, the European social model faces growing challenges today.
Given global competition for investment, a number of non-EU countries – but even EU countries – may be tempted to engage in a race to the bottom in labour standards.
Unfortunately, those most directly concerned, namely workers themselves, often do not have sufficient say in the working conditions they are subject to.
Promoting real and effective social dialogue – and indeed democracy – is an important part of the effort to ensure decent working conditions.
I hope that today's conference will enable us to have a frank debate on all these issues.