Industrial relations and social dialogue

Changing priorities: The impact of COVID-19 on national policy agendas

A first analysis of working life policies and developments in 2020 shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has in some cases speeded up and in other cases slowed down several policy developments in the EU, Norway and the UK, albeit to varying degrees, and dependent on national contexts. Increased teleworking led to a number of accelerated policy developments to address the new work reality for many employees. The digitisation of enterprises and the use of digital tools by employees became a more dominant topic during the pandemic. However, the crisis also disrupted or deprioritised some policy developments, particularly in areas such as employment regulation, pensions and minimum wages. In many cases, disruptions to policy developments were due to the pandemic’s effects on social dialogue, ranging from deferred negotiations to the closer involvement of social partners in contentious issues. It is not possible to predict at this stage the impact of these decelerated policy developments in the post-crisis period.

This article is one of a series that explores working life issues in the 27 EU Member States, Norway and the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is based on information provided by the Network of Eurofound Correspondents and published as a set of individual country reports in ‘Working life in the COVID-19 pandemic 2020’.

Introduction

This article explores the main trends regarding policy developments across the EU Member States, Norway and the UK as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The large-scale extent of the impact of the pandemic in 2020 has generally been acknowledged. However due to different national societal and economic characteristics, the specific nature of the issues faced by Member States before and during the pandemic varied. By extension, the policy discussions and responses also varied. The specific aim of this article is to examine which policy issues across EU Member States were accelerated and which were decelerated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fast-tracked policy developments

Teleworking: New policy discussions and trends

Most national governments in the EU urged workers and civilians to stay home as much as possible during the pandemic. Regarding work arrangements, the urgent requests and recommendations were to telework as much as possible. However, in some countries, teleworking was a more common phenomenon before the pandemic and therefore less effort on the part of employers, workers and governments was required to move to remote working. National policymaking and regulatory cultures also differ, which led to a range of ways that governments facilitated this increase in working from home.

In some Member States, the formalisation and acceleration of telework were accompanied by policy discussions on other domains. Organising telework in a safe way, ensuring that responsibilities and rights were clear for workers and employers, and addressing monitoring and compliance and considerations such as the right to disconnect all became top policy issues as a result of this accelerated trend. For instance, in Austria, teleworking was encouraged by the national government’s strong and repeated recommendations to work from home as much as possible. Workers appeared to comply, while the government developed and passed legislation on occupational health and safety, stipulating that if accidents occur in a worker’s home as a result of their work, the employer is still responsible. In Luxembourg too, social partners and the government saw the need to develop national agreements on working conditions and to refine national legislation in July 2020 which set out the responsibilities regarding working conditions and obligations for employers. In Ireland, a national strategy on remote working was published in January 2021. This strategy includes the right to request remote working, provisions on the right to disconnect and on the rights and obligations of workers and employers in this context. In Slovenia, social partners helped to focus attention on the issue of telework, leading to the creation of a digital service to simplify the mandatory reporting of telework to the Labour Inspectorate via the website SPOT (eVem), in an effort to regulate telework more systematically.

In many other countries, telework was not as prevalent prior to the pandemic. In these countries, defining and regulating telework was more limited and hence the crisis triggered, by comparison, larger advancements in the use of and political attention to telework. For example, in Croatia, the incidence of telework was about 1.9% prior to the pandemic compared to 34% during the first wave of the pandemic, rising to 50% during the second wave. The government appealed to workers to work from home as much as possible, leading to many businesses developing and instigating a telework model of working. This rise sparked discussions on how to adapt the Labour Act, as telework was not yet regulated in legislation. In Hungary, there was also an upsurge in teleworking activity. While this had previously been regulated by the national Labour Code, the rules were fairly rigid. However, these were modified and made more flexible during the pandemic to facilitate the mass move to distance work. In Poland, telework was not recognised by law but instead covered in the national Labour Code, which included strict obligations in areas such as safety at work. In response to the rise in telework, the government introduced a law defining telework and relaxed the conditions under which it could take place, stipulating that ‘the employer may request that the employee performs, for a definite period, work away from its permanent site (remote work), as long as the state of pandemic emergency or state of pandemics is in force for an additional three months after it ends’. Experiences among both employers and workers have been positive so far. Similarly, in Spain, there was no formal regulation on telework before the pandemic as this had not been a priority for the government or social partners, but the pandemic highlighted the necessity of regulation and led to the development of a law on telework or distance working. In this sense, the pandemic was the catalyst for new trends taking hold in these countries, rather than accelerating existing trends.

Other accelerated policy developments

Besides teleworking, other trends were also fast-tracked due to the COVID-19 crisis. Digitalisation surfaced as an important theme in connection with telework, as did the education and training of workers, and the provision of social security and/or better protection for self-employed workers and those working in the gig economy. Beyond such themes, from a working life perspective, sick leave and pay, unemployment compensation, and the expansion of (existing) short-term working (STW) schemes constitute the other main accelerated trends in policymaking.

In many countries, digitisation became a more dominant topic during the crisis in 2020. The digitisation of enterprises, use of digital tools in organisations and by employees, and the degree to which these enterprises need public support to become more digital were discussion points in Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Latvia, Portugal, Slovakia and Norway. In Romania and in Hungary, where digitalisation was relatively low on the policy agenda, the pandemic helped bring this topic to the fore.

Other policy trends included faster action in policymaking on issues such as social protection for all workers, including the self-employed and gig economy workers. France, Spain, and Portugal in particular saw increased emphasis on regulating and protecting gig economy workers due to the surge in online deliveries and work coordinated by online platforms. Discussions on how best to protect the self-employed gained prominence in countries such as Belgium, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia and the UK.

In some countries, existing protection mechanisms like STW schemes were established or extended in reaction to the pandemic. There were renewed policy discussions on STW schemes in France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Slovenia. In Slovakia, a new STW regulation is expected to be introduced in 2021.

Business as usual

In several countries, no major disruptions to working life policies were reported by the Network of Eurofound Correspondents. In Austria, the lack of disruption to policy development was attributed to a new government coming to power. In Belgium, Estonia, Hungary, Norway and Sweden, no planned major reforms or policies were delayed. In Greece, while there was no delay in implementing reforms, certain aspects of policymaking, such as the parliamentary scrutiny, was reportedly strengthened due to the pandemic. In Latvia and Lithuania, there were no disruptions reported either, as the government continued its work on developing working life policies. In the case of Latvia, as in many other Member States, many issues relating to working life which were on the policy agenda remained very relevant or became more so, with the result that planned improvements on working conditions took on greater urgency in the crisis period.

Disruptions and delays to policy developments

Slow-down in social dialogue

One area of policymaking which experienced disruptions due to the pandemic was the involvement of social partners in different areas of activity. In many cases, how governments responded to the pandemic had an impact on social dialogue, resulting in some countries in a freeze in social dialogue and to a deeper involvement of social partners in others.

While no major policy disruptions were reported in Croatia, there were some slowdowns in policymaking, partly due to the lack of agreement regarding social partner involvement in developing and implementing COVID-19-related measures. In Italy, the topic of the representativeness of social partners, an issue which had been raised before the pandemic, fell more to the background. In Norway, social partners themselves paused many of their activities, meetings and congresses due to the crisis. The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) delayed its congress and trade unions postponed most events. The social plan in Portugal, due to be discussed in a tripartite setting in 2020, was also postponed due to the pandemic. In Slovenia, many of the issues being raised and discussed by social partners, including health system reform, digitisation, pension reform, and others, were halted due to the need to tackle the effects of the crisis first. In Romania, an initiative had been put forward by trade unions to modify the Law on Social Dialogue (Law 62/2011) to improve the involvement of social partners. However, this initiative came under attack by employer organisations, arguing as that the pandemic represents a threat to public health, further changes in the social environment must be kept to a minimum.

Employment policies and unemployment issues put on hold

The pandemic has had a sweeping impact on national economies, with many sectors suffering from the effects of the health and safety rules introduced by many governments to stem the health impact of the pandemic. In particular, the crisis has exacerbated some unemployment issues, including labour shortages in particular sectors. In many countries, policy discussions relating to unemployment and sectoral labour shortages were disrupted by the crisis.

In Czechia, to counter labour shortages before the pandemic in areas such as construction, agriculture, the cultural sector and the hospitality sector, employers had resorted to hiring employees from abroad. However, the shortage of workers in the agricultural and construction sectors was especially acute in the summer and autumn of 2020. In other sectors such as health care and the social services, pre-existing shortages became more serious during this period also. Tackling these issues was a major challenge during the crisis, with travel restrictions making the situation much worse.

In Finland, boosting employment had been a long-standing policy priority, with the government seeking to increase employment by 75% during its term in office. However, the pandemic caused a major increase in unemployment and disrupted efforts to achieve this goal. In Slovakia, reducing long-term unemployment had been an area of policy focus and active labour market policies were being developed until the onset of the pandemic. While some measures – in the area of long-term unemployment, employability (such as individual counselling services), and education and training –continued to be developed, active labour market policies were disrupted to make way for the First Aid programme measures to retain employment in pandemic. In the UK, anticipated employment legislation that would have provided reforms to employment law, including zero-hours contracts and the gig economy, were delayed.

Policy reforms suspended

In several countries, planned policy reforms were deprioritised in response to the pandemic. For instance, in France, the government planned to finalise and adopt the contested unemployment insurance and pension reform, but the COVID-19 crisis led to all ongoing reforms being suspended. Ministries acknowledged, however, that both reforms are still needed, although it is unlikely that these reforms will come to the fore again soon given the measures needed to deal with the consequences of the health and economic crises, and the upcoming presidential election in May 2022. In Slovenia, the COVID-19 pandemic led to discussions regarding reforms to the pension system and health system being temporarily put on hold. In Portugal, talks had been taking place on various reforms relating to working life, key to which was a central government programme which aimed to introduce measures for a fairer redistribution of wealth, higher wages, a more even wage distribution, and better working conditions. This large-scale programme was presented to social partners and had been under discussion from the end of 2019 to the first quarter of 2020, but progress was postponed due to the pandemic. In Luxembourg, the pandemic deferred several important aspects of tax reform, including the individualisation of personal taxation, access to housing and the combination of taxation and sustainable development, as well as tax incentives for the mobilisation of building land.

Additionally, some countries have encountered disruptions to negotiations on minimum wages, which is not surprising given that many enterprises face large-scale economic difficulties. In countries where minimum wages were on the agenda, these have often moved down the policy priority list during the pandemic. For instance, in Spain, the topic of minimum wages had been under discussion before the pandemic, but the negotiations surrounding wage increases became tenuous in the context of the COVID-19 crisis as employer organisations argued for minimum wage freezes during the crisis due to the vulnerable situation of most enterprises. The national government remains divided over the issue and this has led to tensions within the current coalition government. In Italy, the ongoing debates regarding the introduction of a legal minimum wage were disrupted due to the focus on other issues during the crisis.

Commentary

Looking at those policy issues which came to the fore as a result of the pandemic, several key trends emerged. One such trend was in the area of teleworking, which was in some countries further extended and accompanied by policy discussion on related domains or in others addressed rapidly due to its use as a relatively new way of working. The approaches taken by countries to adapt and regulate teleworking varied greatly.

Other policy developments that were fast-tracked in some countries during the pandemic were the following: digitalisation; protection for groups that in the past have received less social protection, such as self-employed and gig economy workers; and the expansion of STW schemes.

In terms of disrupted or deprioritised policy developments, these were more varied across countries, with a number of key themes predominating, while in many countries no major disruptions to working life policies were reported at all.

Disrupted or deprioritised policy developments were more likely to be linked to the different national realities and policy priorities in countries before the pandemic. In some countries, disruptions and delays in policy developments included the deprioritisation of policy reform, levels of social dialogue activity and social partner involvement, and disrupted unemployment policies and exacerbated labour shortages. Many of the disruptions cannot be attributed to the immediate impact of the pandemic, but came about indirectly due to some areas being deprioritised. For instance, many of the halted reforms were long-standing reforms that had been debated for quite some time within countries. It is not yet known what impact the crisis will have on the implementation of these reforms. While it may be that the reforms have merely been delayed, it may also be the case that the effects of the pandemic will exert a more substantial shift of focus within these reforms, potentially making them obsolete or requiring alternative responses.

Image © Cavan Images/Adobe Stock

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