Divergent views on future role of social dialogue

Over much of 1999, there were indications of continuing differences between the European Trade Union Confederation and the European private sector employers' organisation UNICE over the agenda and role of the EU-level social dialogue process. This feature reviews the current state of the debate.

Since the March 1999 social partners' agreement on fixed-term work (EU9903162N), which was subsequently transposed into EU law by the Directive of June 1999 (EU9907181F), theEuropean Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE) have been promoting diverging approaches towards developing the agenda and role of the intersectoral EU-level social dialogue process, particularly in relation to the desirability of further framework agreements under the "social chapter" of theAmsterdam Treaty.

Competing agendas

In March 1999, ETUC made proposals to UNICE and theEuropean Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP) for a social dialogue work programme involving the negotiation of framework agreements on the issues of temporary agency work, telework, access to life-long learning and complementary social protection (portability of occupational pensions), together with possible recommendations on the revision of the 1993 working time Directive, anti-discrimination measures under Article 13 of the Treaty, sexual harassment and the proposed EU "observatory on industrial change", in line with the 1998 recommendations of the "Gyllenhammar" high-level group (EU9805106N). ETUC's move followed a pre-European Council social partners' meeting in Vienna the previous December at which it was agreed that a common agenda should be drawn up, relating to theEuropean Commission's November 1998 Communication on modernising the organisation of work (EU9901146F), which called on the social partners to take the lead in modernisation process, and the European Employment Pact launched at the Vienna summit (EU9812141N).

During discussion of ETUC's proposals at the Social Dialogue Committee in April 1999, the employers' organisations are reported to have pressed for a more limited work programme. UNICE wanted to give priority to the completion of an ongoing joint social partners' study of "best practice" and "factors for success" in the area of agreements balancing flexibility and security as promoted by the EU Employment Guidelines (EU9909187F), and also proposed joint work on health and safety issues. As regards ETUC's proposals, UNICE said that it was prepared to examine the issue of temporary agency work to see if there was a basis for negotiations, and proposed joint seminars on telework and complementary social protection (which have since taken place), with no commitment to negotiate.

On 31 August 1999, ETUC wrote to UNICE seeking a formal response to its proposals, arguing that it was unrealistic for UNICE to demand fewer Community initiatives while at the same time refusing to establish "a real bargaining space" allowing for the creation of a framework of employment standards. UNICE's reply confirmed that it saw little merit in pursuing discussions on the revision of the working time Directive, and said that the issue of life-long learning should be dealt with not by negotiations at European level but through practical action at local level. UNICE reserved its position on the issues of sexual harassment, Article 13 measures and the proposed observatory on industrial change, noting that these topics were already on the agenda of the EU institutions and would need to be returned to in that context.

This correspondence coincided with the publication in September 1999 of a UNICE report - Releasing Europe's employment potential: companies' views on European social policy beyond 2000 (EU9909191N) which called for "a more general approach to social dialogue", rather than one "restricted only to the negotiation of agreements at European level". Such an approach would involve structured exchanges of experience and the "benchmarking" of best practice, based on subsidiarity and proportionality. The aim, said UNICE, would be "to encourage progressive and market-driven convergence towards the most successful policy practices of Member States, as opposed to forced harmonisation". UNICE also called for the European Commission to adopt a more "neutral" stance on policy initiatives that are the subject of discussion between the social partners.

ETUC issued a statement criticising the UNICE document for "calling for a watering-down of European social policy". According to ETUC, UNICE's approach could weaken the "all-important" aspect of social dialogue - namely, "the ability to promote common EU rules for working standards in order to prevent social dumping". However, UNICE reiterated its views in a subsequent statement of UNICE priorities for the new European Commission.

Negotiations on temporary agency work?

The social partners' agreement on fixed-term work excluded workers supplied to a user enterprise by a temporary work agency, but stated that: "It is the intention of the parties to consider the need for a similar agreement relating to temporary agency work." In December 1999, the ETUC executive committee agreed to support entering into negotiations over an agreement on the regulation of temporary agency work. However, the German DGB voiced strong reservations about dealing with this issue through the negotiation track of the Amsterdam Treaty social chapter rather than the more traditional EU legislative process, and the Dutch FNV opposed EU-level action on the issue, following recent sectoral agreements on temporary agency work in the Netherlands. A draft ETUC mandate for the negotiations has now been agreed.

UNICE and CEEP have yet to decide whether to agree to negotiations on the issue of temporary agency work. In December 1999, UNICE deferred a decision until March 2000, pending further internal discussions.

Commentary

During the past year, a range of initiatives have been undertaken as part of the "interprofessional" (intersectoral) social dialogue process. For example, as well as the agreement on fixed-term contracts and the joint study of agreements on flexibility and security, the EU-level social partners adopted a joint declaration in May 1999 aimed at promoting equal opportunities in employment for people with disabilities, and there are ongoing discussions relating to the Commission's 1998 Communication on modernising the organisation of work. The social partners are also involved in the macroeconomic dialogue in the framework of the European Employment Pact agreed at the Cologne summit in June 1999 (EU9906180N). However, the scope for, and desirability of, Community-level agreements under the Treaty of Amsterdam's social chapter continues to be controversial, both among the social partners and among EU institutions and governments.

To date, ETUC, UNICE and CEEP have negotiated only three Community-level agreements under the provisions of the social chapter - on parental leave (December 1995), part-time work (June 1997) (EU9706131F) and fixed-term work (March 1999). UNICE's general approach has been to confine its participation in European-level negotiations to those issues which are the subject of a potential legislative initiative by the European Commission. Even then, UNICE has rejected entering into negotiations on a number of Commission initiatives, including on the issues of national information and consultation rules (EU9810133N) and sexual harassment. On the trade union side, there continues to be an internal debate within ETUC as to the appropriateness of EU regulation by social dialogue, with certain national centres preferring the legislative route to establishing European-wide minimum standards.

Beyond the ranks of the social partners, there are also reservations about regulation by social dialogue. The current UK Labour government has placed considerable emphasis on its campaign for labour market flexibility in Europe. with a view to rebalancing the EU's social policy agenda from regulation towards themes such as flexibility and innovation. UK ministers are thought to be uneasy about the social chapter procedure, whereby the Council is asked to give legal backing, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, to a regulatory instrument it has played no part in shaping, and about the representativeness of the three main social partner organisations party to the negotiations. TheEuropean Parliament too is known to be unhappy that the negotiation track of the social chapter procedures precludes the scope for MEP s to influence the substantive terms of any resulting Directives.

It remains to be seen what impact these tensions will have on the direction of EU social policy. Such concerns may well surface at the Portuguese Presidency's special European Council in March 2000 on Employment, economic reform and social cohesion – towards a Europe of innovation and knowledge (EU0001220N). A key indicator is likely to be the balance between legislative and other initiatives in the new social action programme which is currently being considered within the Commission and is expected to be published at the end of summer 2000. (Mark Hall, IRRU)

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