Social partner negotiations on part-time work near deadlock?

Disagreements on the scope of a framework agreement, aimed at extending employment and social protection rights to part-time workers, are threatening negotiations between the social partners, which are currently talking place on the basis of the Agreement on Social Policy.

In a recent press interview, Padraig Flynn, the European commissioner responsible for industrial relations and social affairs, expressed his unease at press reports that the social partners' negotiations on part-time work were heading for collapse, and stated that he remained hopeful of a positive outcome. Senior trade union negotiator and deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), Jean Lapeyre, also stated that he remained convinced that the negotiations could succeed. He stressed, however, that if part-time work was to be made more attractive and acceptable for workers, assurance of "decent social protection" had to be offered.

The social partners decided to launch autonomous negotiations in June 1996 after two rounds of consultation with the Commission on "flexible working time and security for workers", with the aim of leading to an agreement on the issue of part-time work. After the recently adopted framework agreement on parental leave, this is the second time negotiations have taken place on the basis of the Agreement on Social Policy annexed to the Treaty on European Union (and thus excluding the UK). Consultations under the Agreement were initially launched in September 1995, after the Commission abandoned attempts to legislate on "atypical" employment. The Commission's aim had been to provide for temporary and part-time workers to be granted the same rights as full-timers. These "new forms of employment" are not only seen as contributing significantly to employment creation, but are also viewed as responding to the need of employers and employees for greater flexibility. The first draft Directives in this area date back to the early 1980s and became finally blocked as a result of UK opposition in 1994.

Discussions under the Agreement were fraught with difficulties from the outset. In a statement issued in response to the first-stage consultation with the social partners in December 1995, the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) rejected the need for an EU legislative initiative to govern the employment conditions of part-time, fixed-term and temporary workers. While UNICE agreed with the Commission's view that such employment fulfilled the needs of both companies and employees, it refuted the Commission's claim that EU policy was required to secure a balance between the company's interest in greater flexibility, and the workers' interest for greater security. Its position paper merely referred to the "legitimate desire of employees to enjoy adequate protection against discrimination, and the need to promote job creation". UNICE argued that EU-level regulation was unnecessary because the working conditions of such atypical employees were already covered by national legislation or collective bargaining. UNICE also rejected the argument that differentials in wage costs could lead to distortions of competition, arguing that these reflected the economic realities peculiar to each country, and therefore had to be allowed to remain in place. UNICE was also keen to point out that such "atypical forms of employment" also bore additional costs for employers. UNICE reiterated that negotiation at member state level, in line with national law and practice, was the best way of achieving the aims of flexibility and employment creation.

Despite obvious divergences of opinion, UNICE, ETUC and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) initiated negotiations on 21 October 1996, with the aim of reaching a European intersectoral framework agreement on part-time work. Opening the first session, Jean Lapeyre said that the general aim of the negotiations should be to set conditions for using the new forms of work, in ways which more closely address the needs of companies and workers. He expressed the need to transform the perception of non-standard employment as being second-rate. ETUC argued that part-time work, if freely chosen by employees and covered by social and employment protection, could be the kingpin of employment creation strategies. This would also further equal opportunities, as most part-time workers are women. Jean Lapeyre confirmed ETUC's desire to reach a European framework agreement laying down minimum standards, to be fleshed out by national and industry level bargaining.

After the third negotiating session held on 20-21 January 1997, ETUC issued a statement claiming that the negotiations were nearing deadlock and accusing the employers of seeking to shut out as many workers as possible from a framework agreement. ETUC stated that talks could not continue on this basis. The next round of talks was held on 24 February and did not produce any substantial movement in positions. Some doubt must, it appears, be cast on the prospects for a successful conclusion to the talks, unless an accommodation can be reached on the precise coverage of a European framework agreement.

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