EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

European Social Charter

The European Social Charter of the Council of Europe is referred to in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and the Treaty on European Union (TEU) as one of the sources inspiring the social objectives of the EU. The Preamble to the TEU also speaks of the Member States’ wish to confirm ‘their attachment to fundamental social rights as defined in the European Social Charter signed at Turin on 18 October 1961’

The Council of Europe – established in 1949 and having as one of its objectives the promotion of human rights – adopted the European Social Charter in 1961; it was revised in 1996. All EU Member States are Members of the Council of Europe and have ratified the European Social Charter. The Charter includes fundamental rights in the field of social policy generally (health, social security, welfare), and specifically in the fields of employment and industrial relations, including the rights to work, to just conditions of work, to a fair remuneration and to organise and bargain collectively. It was the first international treaty expressly recognising the right to strike.

States who ratify the Charter accept at least five of the seven core Articles of the Charter: the rights to work, organise, bargain collectively, social security, social and medical assistance, rights of the family to social, legal and medical protection and the protection of migrant workers. In addition, they undertake to be bound by at least 10 of the 19 articles in Part II or by 45 of the 72 numbered paragraphs.

The enforcement machinery of the Charter is very different from that of the parallel instrument of the Council of Europe in the field of human rights, namely the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). While the ECHR allows for individual complaints to the European Court of Human Rights, the European Social Charter relies instead on supervision of practices through scrutiny of the regular reports submitted by the states to a committee of independent experts, the European Committee of Social Rights. On the basis of the assessment by the European Committee of Social Rights, a government committee proposes to the Committee of Ministers to issue recommendations requesting (particular) States to bring national law and practice into conformity with the Charter. Moreover, in November 1995, an additional protocol was added to the Charter providing, when ratified, for a system of collective complaints by international and national organisations of employers and trade unions and international non-governmental organisations.

This enforcement system does not depend on the willingness or availability of resources of an individual complainant and it is policy-oriented and might thus provide a broader perspective than a case-based procedure. However, it remains to be seen to what extent states are willing to respect the recommendations, which have not the same sanctioned legal force as a decision of the European Court of Human Rights.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Charter, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) adopted in October 2011 a Resolution taking stock of the protection afforded to fundamental workers' rights by the Charter, particularly in the light of the economic crisis that began in 2008. The Resolution reviews progress and highlights areas where improvements could be made. Overall, the ETUC believes that the current economic and financial crisis has led to fundamental rights being undermined, and that there are issues relating to the effectiveness of fundamental social rights, particularly in areas such as the right to collective action. It also believes that the supervisory system of the Charter is not functioning as well it should: the number of individual recommendations (which are the most severe consequences in cases of non-conformity with the Charter’s provisions) has fallen almost to zero in recent years (see also EU1111031I).

See also: European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; international labour standards; decent work

Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.
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