EU level: Latest developments in working life Q2 2020
Activities of the European Commission and social partners regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the high-level hearing on implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights and a fair EU minimum wage initiative are the main topics of interest in this article. This EU update reports on the latest developments in working life in EU in the second quarter of 2020.
Ensuring the free movement of workers and protecting their health
One of the aims of the European Commission since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to safeguard, as much as possible, the free movement of people, especially employees (including frontier workers).
On 30 March 2020, the Commission published the communication ‘Guidelines concerning the exercise of the freedom of movement for workers during the COVID-19 outbreak’. The communication indicates that border management introduced by Member States to protect public health should take into account the need to preserve the integrity of the internal market. This approach was maintained in the 15 April 2020 Commission communication ‘A European roadmap to lifting coronavirus containment measures’, that was published jointly with Charles Michel, the President of the European Council. According to the roadmap’s provisions, the Commission will analyse the proportionality of the measures taken by Member States and will ask for measures it deems disproportionate to be abolished, especially measures that impact on the single market.
On 13 May 2020, the Commission published recommendations for a phased and coordinated approach to restoring freedom of movement, highlighting that frontier workers, their families and those who do business abroad should have priority in crossing the border.
The Commission has also taken legislative action in the area of occupational safety and health (OSH). On 3 June 2020, the Commission adopted an update of the Biological Factors Directive (2000/54 /EC) to include severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) – the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 – in the list of biological agents it covers. Another action taken by the Commission has been to establish the right for workers who are or might be occupationally exposed to SARS-CoV-2 to be provided with appropriate protective clothing.
- European Commission: Coronavirus: Commission presents practical guidance to ensure the free movement of critical workers
- European Commission: Joint European roadmap towards lifting COVID-19 containment measures
- European Commission: Towards a phased and coordinated approach for restoring freedom of movement and lifting internal border controls
- European Commission: Coronavirus: Biological agents directive updated to better protect the health and safety of workers
Sectoral social dialogue on the effects of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to numerous joint activities of European sectoral social partners. For example, the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF), European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA), Cruise Lines International Association and World Shipping Council sent a joint letter to the ministers of the Member States indicating problems related to the exchange of crews on ships and the need to introduce facilities for third-country nationals that are necessary for crew exchanges at EU ports. 
Another example of cooperation between social partners is the joint declaration of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR). The declaration calls on the European Commission and the Council, among others, to promote funding and investment in essential public services including health care and social services. The declaration also calls on national governments to fully compensate municipalities and regions for additional expenses and loss of income due to the COVID-19 crisis. 
Commission launches broad debate on European Pillar of Social Rights
A high-level hearing of social partners on the planned action plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) took place via videoconference on 8 June 2020. During the hearing, Commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis stressed that the EPSR remains the main compass for a fair and sustainable COVID-19 recovery.
The reaction of social partners was positive but not completely in agreement on the future of the EPSR. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) expressed the view that the EPSR must remain a key element of the European Commission’s economic recovery programme for the EU; according to ETUC, the EPSR action plan should aim to bring measurable benefits to European workers, including legislative initiatives such as the right to fair pay through collective bargaining.
On the employers’ side, the European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public Services and Services of general interest (CEEP) has supported the goal of building a thriving, sustainable and fair union while supporting upward convergence, but at the same time has pointed out that the EPSR should focus less on new EU legislation, and more on ensuring national responsibility and implementating its principles under the European Semester.
- European Commission: Action plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights: Social partner hearing on 8 June
- ETUC: ETUC on future of European Pillar of Social Rights
- CEEP: CEEP comments on the upcoming action plan on the Pillar of Social Rights
New cross-sectoral framework agreement of European social partners
The European social partners’ framework agreement on digitalisation was signed by the ETUC and BusinessEurope, CEEP and SMEunited on 22 June 2020. The agreement aims to support the successful digital transformation of Europe’s economy regarding working life arrangements. The agreement is also expected to be useful for social partners at national level in terms of changes in the nature of work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in relation to the acceleration of technological change and the significant increase in telework.
Consultation on a fair EU minimum wage
The Commission launched the second stage of consultations with European trade union and employer organisations on how to ensure fair minimum wages for all employees in the European Union on 22 June 2020. Based on the responses received from the first consultation phase, the Commission concluded that there was a need for further action at EU level. Both legislative and non-legislative instruments are being considered. European social partners have until 4 September to respond to the consultation. It is expected that the opinions will be very divergent.
- European Commission: Fair minimum wages: Commission launches second-stage consultation of social partners
Tripartite Social Summit on challenges related to COVID-19
The Tripartite Social Summit was held via video conference on 23 June 2020, under the banner ‘Contribution of the social partners to relaunching growth and employment in the aftermath of COVID-19’. Discussions at the summit focused on four areas:
- economic and social crisis related to COVID-19
- exit strategy from deconfinement
- the long-term EU budget and economic recovery plan proposed by the European Commission, the Commission’s 2020 work programme and proposals from the social partners
- autonomous agreement of the social partners on digitalisation
European Council President Charles Michel said that the efforts of the European institutions to repair and rebuild will only succeed if they are accompanied by social dialogue and the continual involvement of social partners. ETUC General Secretary Luca Visentini agreed that the recovery plan is the only chance for Europe to recover from the COVID-19 crisis in a fairer, more ecological and united way, but stated that the plan should be implemented with appropriate trade union involvement at all levels.
On behalf of EU employer organisations, BusinessEurope Director General Markus Beyrer said that all companies – including SMEs and companies providing services of general interest – need support to overcome the shock of the crisis and become even more resilient. He added that Europe’s growth strategy must include – but not be limited to – ecological and digital change, as well as providing for a boost in terms of competitiveness.
- European Commission: Tripartite Social Summit video conference, 23 June 2020
It is expected that the actions of EU institutions and European social partners will continue to focus on countering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the summer, it will be important to see if Member States are successful in reaching an agreement on the Next Generation EU fund to help in this process. A successful agreement would also have implications for the future of the integration process.
Research carried out prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January 2020, and published subsequently, may include data relating to the 28 EU Member States. Following this date, research only takes into account the 27 EU Member States (EU28 minus the UK), unless specified otherwise.