Commission invites social partners to take the lead in modernising work organisation

In November 1998, the European Commission adopted a Communication on "Modernising the organisation of work - a positive approach to change", aimed at stimulating and strengthening partnership in the modernisation of work organisation. The Communication calls on the social partners at all levels to consider the best possible means to facilitate and complement the "adaptability pillar "of the EU Employment Guidelines, and to develop at appropriate levels a framework to advance the modernisation of work organisation. The new document builds on the responses to the consultative Green Paper on work organisation launched in April 1997.

The achievement of a positive balance between work organisation, productivity, innovation and employment has been a central concern of the European Union social policy agenda for some time. Moreover, it constitutes part of a broader agenda revolving around the adaptation of national economies, employment, and social protection systems to the requirements of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), the globalisation of the economy, the increasing need for competitiveness and the desire to reduce levels of unemployment.

The European Commission's Green Paper on Partnership for a new organisation of work, launched in April 1997 (EU9707134F), triggered a lively debate across the EU among a wide range of interest groups, including employers, trade unions, public authorities and the main European institutions. Alongside a number of conferences and workshops (EU9805105F), more than 150 written comments were submitted to the Commission by social partners, governments, research institutes and individual companies.

Green Paper debate

In the Green Paper, the Commission recognised that there is no universal way to modernise the organisation of work, or reconcile flexibility and security. It argued that it was innovation at the workplace level which could make a contribution to the competitiveness of European firms, whilst at the same time enhancing the quality of working life and increasing the employability of the workforce. The Green Paper emphasised the importance of renewing the structures and agreements which currently govern the organisation of work, and argued that the social partners were best placed to facilitate this transformation in work organisation.

Subsequently, the June 1997 Amsterdam European Council meeting (EU9706133N) also highlighted the importance of the creating conditions that would promote a skilled and adaptable workforce, as well as flexible labour markets that are responsive to economic change. The ideas expressed in the Green Paper were given additional endorsement at the November 1997 Luxembourg Employment Summit (EU9711168F), which established the concept of "adaptability" as one of the four key pillars of the EU Employment Guidelines. The desire to modernise the organisation of work through partnership therefore became a central component of the European employment strategy.

The Commission has drawn the following conclusions from the consultation and discussion process launched by the Green Paper:

  • the modernisation process must be speeded up. New, more flexible forms of work organisation are generally not widespread in Europe. Individual good practices have been developed, but support is required to transform them into innovative policies;
  • the new organisation of work affects all workplaces, including the public and private sectors, and both small and large firms;
  • concrete measures for the organisation of work are the responsibility of firms. It is a key role of management, with the proper involvement of workers, to develop the most suitable and effective methods. Partnership in change is a key to success; and
  • in the search for a better organisation of work, more attention must be given to the gender perspective, including the reconciliation of working and family life.

On the basis of these conclusions, the Commission formulated a Communication entitled Modernising the organisation of work - a positive approach to change, issued on 25 November 1998, which calls upon the social partners to take a leading role, at European, national and company level, to foster a new approach to work organisation.

The role envisaged for the social partners

The new Commission Communication aims to "stimulate and strengthen partnership for the modernisation of work organisation". It invites the social partners at European, national and sectoral level to "consider the best possible means to facilitate and complement the adaptability pillar of the Employment Guidelines and to develop at appropriate levels a framework for action on this subject". While accepting that the prime responsibility for the modernisation of work organisation rests with firms, the Commission believes that this process can be successful only if "it is based on close cooperation between the social partners, and if it is carried out with due regard to the economic and employment policies being put in place."

The Communication is based on a belief that the social partners are ready to make a "strong commitment to the modernisation of work organisation". It outlines the elements of a new approach which it believes the social partners could adopt - an approach which would include agreements among the social partners in response to the adaptability pillar of the Employment Guidelines. The main components of this proposed new approach are as follows:

  1. The social partners should establish some common objectives. The context is that EU's over-riding objectives are competitiveness and employment. Improvements in productivity, through better work organisation, are necessary if enterprises are to improve their competitive position and if the EU is to achieve its economic objectives. Furthermore, "a positive approach to reconciling the needs of firms for flexibility and the needs of workers for security in change" is seen as essential. Flexibility within enterprises, says the Commission, promotes not only corporate productivity but also the quality of working life, while security for workers can benefit the enterprise in the form of "a more stable, versatile and motivated workforce".
  2. The establishment of a process for "joint initiatives for modernising work organisation". Within the Employment Guidelines' adaptability pillar, the social partners are invited to negotiate agreements to modernise the organisation of work, at all appropriate levels. This "clearly involves the social partners at European level, who could develop a process for the modernisation of work organisation, in particular to assist and promote adaptability at other levels". The Commission sees such a process, based on partnership, as "the most promising way of modernising working life". Work organisation needs to be reviewed in the same way that governments have agreed to review the legal framework for the labour market, to change the contractual framework where necessary to adjust to new conditions, and to find solutions to new requirements. According to the Communication, this presents a challenge for the social partners to "establish a coherent and comprehensive framework for action instead of reacting positively or negatively to piecemeal legislative initiatives".

There are a number of issues which were identified in the Green Paper consultation process that the Commission believes would be helpful for the social partners to address in a coherent way. These include:

  • the development of training and life-long learning initiatives to enhance employability;
  • "the development of working time packages in a comprehensive framework". The social partners have already reached agreement on part-time work (EU9706131F) and could soon do so on fixed-term contracts (following a draft agreement in January 1999). The Commission also welcomes the agreements on working time which have been reached in the rail and maritime transport sectors as important steps in the right direction (EU9901144F);
  • "facilitating the diversification of working relations as well as new forms of work". This could include allowing new forms of contractual relationships and career paths to develop, while providing security to workers;
  • ensuring the optimum conditions for the introduction and uptake of new technologies, which is seen as being linked with the development of continuous training and with facilitating the diversification of work practices. The social partners could lead the way in developing an integrated approach to the introduction of new technology;
  • promoting workers' motivation and adaptability through increased involvement. The Communication stresses the importance of good communications and the commitment of workers to the change process and the new organisation of work. Financial participation is mentioned specifically; and
  • promoting equal opportunities. There is a need for the social partners to integrate, or "mainstream", the gender dimension into any new agreements or policies formulated, and to undertake further activities that promote the reconciliation of work and family life for both men and women.

Although the Communication emphasises the role of the social partners and collective agreements in modernising work organisation, it also specifies a role for national governments, as they are responsible for the general legal framework within which companies operate. As the Employment Guidelines have encouraged each Member State to examine the possibility of incorporating more adaptable types of contract into their legislative frameworks, the Communication similarly urges Member States to consider how their legislative provisions for the organisation of work could best be modernised, in cooperation with the social partners at national level.

The Communication is addressed to the social partners and to the EU institutions. With respect to the former, the Commission considers that the Communication is "a call for the social partners to seize the opportunity to take leadership of the change process."

Commenting on the Communication, the Commissioner responsible for social affairs, Pádraig Flynn, said: "This document presents a new challenge for the social partners both at national and European levels, and at industry-wide and sectoral levels. It presents an unprecedented opportunity for them to take the lead in establishing a balanced approach on the modernisation of work organisation in the way they consider most appropriate."

Commentary

In its Communication, the Commission is again underlining the importance it attaches to the social dialogue process at European, national and company level. It also highlights an appreciation of the contribution the social dialogue process can make, firstly in promoting and achieving legislative change, and secondly by acting as a catalyst for modernising the organisation of work. This positive view of the social dialogue appears to be supported by both: the final report, submitted in December 1998, of the high-level expert group on the economic and social implications of industrial change, set up by the European Council as a result of the Luxembourg Employment Summit; and by the expert group on the evolution of labour law in Europe (the "Madrid group"). Both advocate social dialogue and collective agreements as the most dynamic instrument for anticipating, preparing for and managing the modernisation of work organisation. This clearly makes practical sense, as the social partners are usually the closest to the realities of the enterprise. They also represent the most flexible institutions for finding a balance between different interests, as well as promoting and achieving change.

However, this is not to underestimate the vast task at hand, and it would be naïve to assume that the social partners can single-handedly - or always consensually - modernise the organisation of work. This is why the Communication has emphasised the notion of partnership and cooperation between the social partners and national Member States. In addition, a number of EU programmes and policies have been put in place, or are currently being implemented, to support concrete actions undertaken by the social partners. For example, one key objective of the structural funds is to facilitate new ways of managing production and work organisation through providing finance for training measures designed to improve workers' skill. Also, based on the Commission Communication on The social and labour market dimension of the information society (EU9707140N), a "European network on work organisation" is being established to support local and national initiatives.

The Commission hopes to have the first elements of a social partner response to the Communication, in time to influence the implementation of the 1999 Employment Guidelines (EU9810130F) and the preparation of the joint employment report for the Helsinki Summit to be staged in December 1999. (Peter Foster, ECOTEC Research &Consulting)

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