EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Working conditions

Working conditions refers to the working environment and aspects of an employee’s terms and conditions of employment. This covers such matters as: the organisation of work and work activities; training, skills and employability; health, safety and well-being; and working time and work-life balance. Pay is also an important aspect of working conditions, although Article 153 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) excludes pay from the scope of its actions in the area of working conditions.

Improving working conditions is one of the goals of the EU. Article 151 TFEU states that: ‘The Union and the Member States… shall have as their objectives the promotion of employment, improved living and working conditions, so as to make possible their harmonisation while the improvement is being maintained’. Further, Article 153 TFEU states that ‘the Union shall support and complement the activities of the Member States’ in a range of social policy fields, including working conditions (Article 153 1(b)).

The thinking of the EU on its competences in the area of working conditions has developed considerably over the past half century. The original EEC Treaty of 1957 took the view that the objectives of improved living and working conditions were to be achieved primarily through the mechanisms of the common market. Intervention was only to secure what was consistent with the common market: the free movement of labour. This policy was revised in 1972, when European heads of state agreed that the increasing involvement of labour and management in the economic and social decisions of the Community was desirable. Accordingly, the European Commission was instructed to draw up a Social Action Programme (SAP), the three main objectives of which were: attainment of full and better employment in the Community; improvement of living and working conditions; and increased involvement of management and labour in the economic and social decisions of the Community and of workers in the life of undertakings. Progress towards these objectives took the form of a legislative programme during the 1970s. The Council also established the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions in 1975 to undertake research into the new and developing area of Community social policy, and to stimulate and provide the scientific basis for the Community’s legislative initiatives. The Protocol on Social Policy of the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht (Treaty on European Union), later the new Social Chapter of the EC Treaty, greatly expanded the social competences of the Community to include, among other matters, ‘working conditions’. This commitment has been retained in the TFEU (Article 153).

Directives that govern various aspects of working conditions include: the working time Directive (2003/88/EC), which sets out maximum weekly working time and minimum rest periods; and the 1989 framework Directive on health and safety (1989/391/EEC), in the framework of which a number of Directives relating to specific health and safety issues, such as the use of visual display units (VDUs – Directive 90/270/EEC) have been adopted.

Changes in working conditions

Changes in working conditions and other aspects of the employment relationship can generate serious industrial relations problems. One issue is that workers may not have precise information about their working conditions in the first place. This was addressed by Council Directive 91/533/EEC of 14 October 1991 on an employer’s obligation to inform employees of the conditions applicable to the contract or employment relationship. The directive stipulates that the employer must provide information covering all ‘essential aspects’ of the employment relationship. The employer is obliged to prepare a document with the requisite information, and give it to the employee not later than two months after the commencement of employment. Further, a new document that reflects any changes in core working conditions must be issued.

The normal rule is that an employer cannot change the terms and conditions of employment without the consent of the employee, when such modifications are outside the management prerogative. So, merely informing the employee by a written statement is not conclusive of the existence of an agreed change in the terms. When the employer does not have the right in the contract – if they try to alter rates of pay, hours of work, or the status or grade of the employee – they must obtain the employee’s consent before the change can have any legal effect. The existence of a written statement does not mean that it has been agreed and is thus binding.

If the employer unilaterally drafts the written information, challenges concerning the accuracy, and hence validity, of the document purporting to comply with the directive’s requirements may arise in the absence of any worker input to the document. This could be avoided if the document itself cites a collective agreement as the source for changes in terms and conditions.

See also: collective agreements and working conditions; harmonisation; health and safety; European Industrial Relations Observatory; social objectives; third-country nationals; Treaties of Rome; Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

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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