ETUC marks 50 years of the European Social Charter

A list of improvements to the lives and working conditions of people in Europe was published in October 2011 to mark the 50th anniversary of the European Social Charter (ESC). The European Trade Union Confederation adopted a resolution describing how the ESC has protected fundamental workers' rights since its adoption on 18 October 1961 by the Council of Europe, and calling on Member States to abide by the charter’s standards, especially in the current economic crisis.


The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) marked the 50th anniversary of the European Social Charter (ESC) by adopting a resolution (388Kb PDF) at its executive committee on 19–20 October 2011. It tells how the ESC has, since its adoption on 18 October 1961 by the Council of Europe, contributed to the improvement of people’s working and living conditions. It says that the charter is ‘one of the last safeguards to protect workers and citizens, in particular the most vulnerable’.

The resolution also notes that the rights contained in the ESC have been extended and now form part of the 31 social rights enshrined in the Revised European Social Charter, (RESC) adopted in 1996.

The ETUC feels that, in the current crisis, it is important that social standards continue to provide a minimum level of protection. It therefore calls on Member States to abide by those standards set out in the ESC and to adhere to the policies developed within the framework of the ESC, including the Collective Complaint Procedure Protocol, which allows unions to raise issues concerning charter violations.

Achievements and challenges

The resolution contains an appendix setting out the main aims and achievements of the ESC, and also identifying areas where improvements could be made.

Progress and impacts

The ETUC points out that the main aims of the ESC are to:

  • promote fundamental social rights, based on a human rights approach;
  • to increase the ESC’s impact on international organisations, the judiciary, national administration, social partners, civil society and citizens.

It says progress has been made in several areas including:

The ETUC also believes that the collective complaints procedure has successfully offered the European Committee of Social Rights the opportunity to give fundamental social rights a concrete meaning and a coherent legal background.

Further, the ESC has contributed to the development of fundamental social rights within the framework of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and improvements in national legislation and better working and living conditions. It has also been referenced in European and national court decisions.

Challenges and areas for improvement

Despite this progress, however, the ETUC has identified a number of challenges and problems. For example, the ETUC states that fundamental social rights are still often considered to be ‘second class’ human rights. Further, it believes that the current economic and financial crisis has led to fundamental rights being undermined.

There are also issues relating to the effectiveness of fundamental social rights, particularly in ‘sensitive’ areas such as the right to collective action. There are also problems that have not been resolved, despite awareness of them for several decades.

Further, the ETUC believes that the supervisory system of the ESC 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 ESC’s provisions) has fallen almost to zero in recent years.

The ETUC also states that severe problems have been caused by certain provisions of the Turin Amending Protocol not being applied, and that inequalities are growing between the Member States that have ratified the Complaints Procedure Protocol and those that have not.

Proposed initiatives

In order to address these issues, the ETUC has called on the Member States to ratify, by 2016, all relevant measures in the RESC. Its particular focus here is the four countries that have not yet adopted any relevant measures from the charter, and those countries that have not even ratified the charter.

The ETUC calls on the Committee of Ministers to open up a new framework for fundamental social rights by raising the political profile of the ESC in the activities of the Council of Europe, enhancing ratification, effective monitoring and starting work on the accession of the EU to the Charter.

The ETUC asks the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to give fundamental social rights a more prominent role, by conducting regular hearings on specific rights and monitoring and further promoting the role of parliaments in the consolidation and development of social rights in Europe.

It asks the European Committee of Social Rights to create and/or intensify contacts with the European Courts and international bodies supervising fundamental social rights, and to organise consultations with the European social partners.

It urges the Governmental Committee of the ESC to respond effectively to challenges, in particular by reviewing procedural rules in order to provide for effective monitoring. It also asks the Committee to review working methods, including the introduction of individual recommendations against countries that do not submit reports or provide relevant information.

Finally, it calls on the Secretariat of the ESC to strengthen promotional activities by:

  • using awareness campaigns;
  • conducting seminars,
  • translating RESC conclusions;
  • consulting social partners regularly;
  • intensifying cooperation with the International Labour Organization.


The ESC is an important basis for fundamental workers’ rights and one that has played a vital role in the development and implementation of these rights in the EU over the past 50 years. The ETUC praises the progress made by the ESC since 1961, although it is clear that there are some issues and challenges that remain. The current economic recession means that those who are charged with the maintenance and implementation of fundamental rights need to be vigilant to ensure that they are upheld.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies

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