EU-level: Working life profile

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Gender equality,
  • Health and well-being at work,
  • Pay and income,
  • Work organisation,
  • Working time,
  • Collective bargaining,
  • Social dialogue,
  • Social dialogue,
  • Social dialogue,
  • Social partners,
  • Employee representation,
  • Participation at work,
  • Representativeness,
  • Labour law,
  • Labour and social regulation,
  • Labour and social regulation,
  • Working conditions,
  • Labour market change,
  • Industrial relations,
  • Labour and social regulation,
  • Published on: 13 July 2016

EU Level
Andrea Broughton
Institute for Employment Studies

This profile describes the key characteristics of working life at EU level. It aims to complement other EurWORK research on EU-level developments and reference tools, such as the European Industrial Relations Dictionary, by providing the relevant background information on structures, actors and developments regarding working life. This profile is also intended to complement the national-level Working Life profiles, giving the necessary overview about the relevant EU regulations and structures affecting national developments. It includes an in-depth description of collective employment relations at EU level, a thematic overview of EU provisions and developments affecting working life across the EU Member States and brief comment on two additional, unique EU institutions and their impact on working life. The profiles are updated annually.

Download the full profile (740 KB PDF)


The uniqueness of the EU’s institutional set up requires a general introduction on the legal and industrial relations context. Thus, before discussing relevant institutions and specific developments at EU level that affect the working life of employees across the EU Member States, this section provides a general overview about the EU’s role in regulating aspects of working life and the nature of industrial relations, as well as the economic context.

Legal context

Nature and scope of EU legislation

The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) covers a range of aspects of working life. Article 9 of the TFEU states, ‘In defining and implementing its policies and activities, the Union shall take into account requirements linked to the promotion of a high level of employment, the guarantee of adequate social protection, the fight against social exclusion, and a high level of education, training and protection of human health.’

Title IX covers employment, stating in Article 147 of the TFEU that ‘the Union shall contribute to a high level of employment’ and that this objective shall be taken into consideration in the formulation and implementation of Union policies and activities.

Title X covers social policy and makes reference to a number of areas of working life for EU citizens. For example, Article 153 of the TFEU states that the Union shall support and complement the activities of the Member States in a number of areas, including:

  • working environment and health and safety;
  • working conditions;
  • social security and social protection;
  • protection of workers when their contract is terminated;
  • information and consultation of workers;
  • representation and collective defence of the interests of workers and employers, including co-determination;
  • equality between men and women;
  • the combating of social exclusion;
  • the modernisation of social protection systems.

However, pay is explicitly excluded from the Treaty.

The provisions of the EU Treaties are the primary source of EU law. The doctrine of supremacy of EU law means that treaty provisions take precedence over domestic laws. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) may attribute to some treaty provisions the legal quality of ‘direct effect’, allowing individuals to cite them before national courts.

Aside from the Treaty base, most EU law on employment and industrial relations is found in other EU legal measures, particularly Directives. In the case of health and safety, for example, there are a range of directives covering a variety of aspects of the health and safety of workers at work, most emanating from the Framework Directive (89/391/EEC) on improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. Pregnant workers are afforded special protection by the Directive, as are young workers.

Directives also govern issues such as equal treatment and equal pay between men and women, and discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.

Directives also govern the length of working time and the regulation of rest periods and breaks, both at EU level and in individual sectors; the regulation of part-time work and fixed-term contracts.

EU cross-sector social partner agreements have provided the basis for some of this legislation; agreements have subsequently been given legal underpinning by Council decisions, a process provided for by the TFEU (see below). This has been the case with agreements on parental leave, part-time work and fixed-term contracts.

EU cross-sector social partner agreements, implemented by custom and practice in Member States rather than by Council decision, cover aspects of working life such as harassment and bullying, stress, teleworking and combating violence and harassment at work.

There have been no recent major changes to European labour legislation. However, the Commission is reviewing legislation in a number of areas, such as health and safety, information and consultation, working time, posted workers, temporary agency work, part-time work, and fixed-term work and the employment relationship, in order to ensure that the legislation remains fit for purpose and with a view to simplifying it where possible.

This process is known as REFIT, the European Commission’s Regulatory Fitness and Performance programme, launched in December 2012. Its aim is ‘to make EU law lighter, simpler and less costly so that it benefits citizens and businesses and helps to create the conditions for growth and jobs. It does not put into question the EU’s policy objectives, but seeks for more effective ways to achieve them’ (European Commission memo, 18 June 2014). More information can be found in the article Commission details plans to cut red tape.

The scope and significance of EU legislation has remained stable in recent years.

Industrial relations context

The unique role of management and labour

Val Duchesse’ is the term used to describe the emergence of the European social dialogue in the mid-1980s. This was the result of an initiative taken by Jacques Delores, the then incoming President of the Commission in January 1985, to invite the chairs and general secretaries of all the national organisations affiliated to the EU-level organisations of employers and workers to a meeting at the castle of Val Duchesse outside Brussels on 31 January 1985. At this historic meeting, the social partners agreed to engage in furthering social dialogue.

European social dialogue is now rooted in the TFEU, Articles 152–155, which provide for a procedure that combines the consultation of the social partners by the Commission, with the option to leave social regulation to bipartite agreement between management and labour organised at European level.

Article 155(1) provides the procedure for EU-level social partner agreements, stating that ‘should management and labour so desire, the dialogue between them at Union level may lead to contractual relations, including agreements.’ In the course of the consultation, the social partners state whether they wish to initiate the process provided for in Article 155 TFEU – the bipartite social dialogue – which may lead to contractual relations, including agreements. Article 155(2) states that ‘agreements concluded at Union level shall be implemented either in accordance with the procedures and practices specific to management and labour and the Member States or, in matters covered by Article 153, at the joint request of the signatory parties, by a Council decision on a proposal from the Commission.’

The forms and content of the responses of the social partners in this consultation phase may be very different. An autonomous agreement is guided by the principle of subsidiarity, empowering national affiliates with the task of implementing such an agreement in line with national procedures and practices. Alternatively, Article 155(2) allows social partners to ask the Commission to take a proposal to the Council, which leads in practice to implementation by Council Directive, including all legal consequences specific to the instrument of a Directive. However, should the social partners fail to reach an agreement, a fallback position exists which allows the Commission to address the issue via the normal legislative procedure, as famously occurred in the case of the European Works Council Directive in 1994.

The past few years have seen some sectoral agreements, such as the agreement on health and safety in the hairdressing sector in 2013. This caused controversy, as the Commission decided not to give it legal underpinning in the form of a Directive. In March 2015, the European Commission held a high-level conference at which it relaunched social dialogue, stating that it was committed to strengthening this process. The conference discussed concrete ways to strengthen social dialogue throughout the EU with EU cross-industry social partners and their national affiliates from all Member States, as well as EU sector social partner organisations.

Following this conference, the EU social partners adopted a joint declaration in Brussels on 26–27 January 2016 announcing a fresh start for a strong social dialogue at European level. The declaration stresses the importance of:

  • involving of social partners in EU policymaking;
  • the functioning and effectiveness of social dialogue and the capacity-building of social partners at national level;
  • involving social partners in the European economic governance and European Semester and in assessing, designing, agreeing and implementing relevant reforms and policies;
  • clarifying the relation between social partners’ agreements and the European Commission’s better regulation agenda.

Economic and labour market context

The EU has undergone an economic recession since 2008. Growth in GDP for the EU28 (in current prices) slowed substantially in 2008 and GDP contracted considerably in 2009 as a result of the global financial and economic crisis. EU28 GDP shrank from 3.1% in 2007 to 0.5% in 2008 and to -4.4% in 2009. There was a recovery in the level of GDP for the EU28 in 2010 and this development continued (albeit at a progressively slower pace) in 2011–2013, before growth accelerated again in 2014, as current price GDP increased by 3.0 %. There have been significant variations among Member States, however, with the biggest hits taken in 2009 by Lithuania (-14.8%), Estonia (-14.7%), Latvia (-14.2%) and Finland (-8.3%).

The economic slowdown has had an effect on the EU labour market: the employment rate for the EU28 fell from 65.7% in 2008 to 64.4% in 2009 and continued to drop to 64.1% by 2013. There are signs that a labour market recovery might be on the way, with the employment rate averaging 64.9% in 2014. There are considerable variations between Member States, with employment rates in 2009 varying between 77.0% in the Netherlands and 55.0% in Hungary.

The current employment rate for men in the EU28 (2014) is 70.1%, compared with 59.6% for women.

The crisis hit young people’s employment particularly hard, and the labour market participation of young people is now a key concern for EU policymakers. In 2014, youth unemployment (those aged under 25) stood at 21.9% in the EU28 (Source: Eurostat).

Actors and Institutions

Employees’ and employers’ organisations, bi- and tripartite bodies as well as EU institutions, play a key role in the governance of employment relationships, working conditions and industrial relations structures at EU level. These actors and institutions are interlocking parts in a multilevel system of governance that includes the intersectoral, sectoral, company and workplace level. This section looks into the main actors and institutions and their role at EU level.

EU bodies involved in shaping working life

Institutions with legislative and executive function

The European Commission is the EU’s politically independent executive arm. It is responsible for drawing up proposals for new European legislation, and it implements the decisions of the European Parliament and of the Council. It is organised into Directorate-Generals (DGs). DG Employment (DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion) is the main DG responsible for employment, social dialogue and working conditions.

The European Parliament is the EU’s law-making body, directly elected by EU voters every five years. The last elections were in May 2014. The Parliament has three main roles: legislative; supervisory; and budgetary. The European Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee (EMPL) deals with all aspects related to employment and social legislation.

The Council of the European Union comprises government ministers from each EU country, who meet to discuss, amend and adopt laws (in most cases together with the European Parliament through the ordinary legislative procedure, also known as 'codecision'), and to coordinate policies. The ministers have the authority to commit their governments to the actions agreed on in the meetings. Together with the European Parliament, the Council is the main decision-making body of the EU. The Council of the EU is a single legal entity, but it meets in 10 different 'configurations' depending on the subject being discussed. The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council 'configuration' (EPSCO) brings together ministers responsible for employment, social affairs, health and consumer policy from all EU member states. The advisory committees of the EPSCO that deal with employment and social protection issues are the Employment Committee (EMCO) and the Social Protection Committee (SPC).

The main institutions and mechanisms monitoring the enforcement of employees’ rights include the Senior Labour Inspectors’ Committee (SLIC). SLIC started to meet in an informal way in 1982 to assist the European Commission in monitoring the enforcement of EU legislation at national level. A Commission Decision (95/319/EC) gave the Committee formal status in 1995 with a mandate to give its opinion to the Commission, either at the Commission’s request or on its own initiative, on all problems relating to the enforcement by the Member States of Community law on health and safety at work.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), while not an executive body, has a mandate to make European workplaces safer, healthier and more productive for the benefit of businesses, employees and governments. It promotes a culture of risk prevention to improve working conditions in Europe, and provides tools and advice to organisations in order to help them to improve health and safety at the workplace. It also conducts two-year campaigns raising awareness of occupational safety and health (OSH) topics across Europe.

The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) is a tripartite EU Agency, the role of which is to provide knowledge in the area of social and work-related policies, information, advice and expertise – on living and working conditions, industrial relations and managing change in Europe – for key actors in EU social policy on the basis of comparative information, research and analysis.

The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (known by the acronym of its French name, Cedefop) is charged with assisting the European Commission, Member States and social partner organisations across Europe to develop policy on vocational training and training in the European Union. Cedefop, based in Thessaloniki, Greece, was established in 1975 by Council Regulation 337/75 as a non-profit-making body and was one of the first specialised and decentralised agencies set up to provide scientific and technical know-how in specific fields, and to promote exchanges of ideas between different European partners.

European Court of Justice

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way in all EU countries, and settles legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions. It can also, in certain circumstances, be used by individuals, companies or organisations to take action against an EU institution, if they feel it has somehow infringed their rights. The court is divided into three bodies:

  • Court of Justice – deals with requests for preliminary rulings from national courts, certain actions for annulment and appeals.
  • General Court – rules on actions for annulment brought by individuals, companies and, in some cases, EU governments. In practice, this means that this court deals mainly with competition law, state aid, trade, agriculture, trademarks.
  • Civil Service Tribunal – rules on disputes between the EU and its staff.

Each judge and advocate general is appointed for a renewable six-year term, jointly by national governments. In each court, the judges select a President who serves a renewable term of three years.

Representatives at cross-industry level

As part of the policy of promoting the engagement of the European social partners in the formulation of EU social policy, Articles 154–155 TFEU provide a procedure that combines the consultation of the social partners by the Commission with the option to leave social regulation to bipartite agreement between management and labour organised at European level. According to Article 154 TFEU, the Commission, before submitting proposals in the social policy field, has to consult management and labour on the possible direction of that Community action. Moreover, if, after such consultation, the Commission considers Community action advisable, it is obliged to consult management and labour on the content of the envisaged proposal.

If the social partners ask to deal with the issue by bipartite social dialogue, the Commission will suspend its legislative initiative. The bipartite dialogue may lead to contractual relations, including agreements. If the social partners do not reach an agreement, the Commission can still decide to tackle the issue via the normal legislative procedure. If the social partners do reach an agreement, Article 155(2) provides two ways to ensure its implementation: the ‘autonomous’ reliance on national procedures and practices specific to management and labour and the Member States; or the route via ‘implementation by Council decision’, which leads in practice to implementation by Council Directive. These procedures can be used to arrive at both intersectoral and sectoral agreements.

Eurofound’s 2014 study, Representativeness of the social partners in the European cross-industry social dialogue, established the representativeness of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), The Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Eurocadres), European Confederation of Executives and Managerial Staff (CEC) on the trade union side and BusinessEurope, the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME), and the European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public Services (CEEP) on the employers’ side.

European level cross-industry trade union confederations

Long name



European Trade Union Confederation


No available information on membership. No notable changes on membership or changes in representation. The ETUC was set up in 1973 and is made up of 90 national trade union confederations in 39 countries, in addition to 10 European trade union federations. The ETUC’s member confederations cover a wide variety of types of work in many sectors.

The Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff


Set up in 1993, it represents almost six million professionals and managers. Members of Eurocadres are national confederations and federations as well as European Trade Union Federations.

European Confederation of Executives and Managerial Staff


Founded in 1989, it is composed of 9 European branch federations and 17 national organisations, accounting for a total of 1.5 million managers and professionals in 15 European countries.

European level cross-industry employers organisations

Long name





BusinessEurope has member federations at national level in EU Member States. No membership numbers of individual companies are available.

European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises


UEAPME’s members are composed of representative national, cross-sectoral organisations representing craft activities and/or SME businesses in the different sectors of the economy within the European Union.

European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public Services


CEEP has national and sectoral member organisations in EU Member States. It mainly covers public sector organisations, although some private sector organisations that provide public services may also be included.

Tripartite and bipartite bodies


Type and composition

Frequency of meetings

Issues covered

Liaison Forum

Employer and employee representatives.

The Liaison Forum meets several times a year.

All issues relevant to the social dialogue.

European Economic and Social Committee

EESC members belong to one of three groups: employers, workers or experts with special interests.

The EESC holds Plenary Sessions every one or two months.

The task of members is to issue opinions on matters of European interest to the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament on all EU issues, including employment and social affairs.

Tripartite Social Summit

Employer and employee representatives.

The Summit meets at least once a year, before the spring European Council.

All areas of social policy that are relevant to cross-industry social dialogue.

Macroeconomic Dialogue

High-level exchange of views between representatives of the Council, Commission, European Central Bank and European social partners.

Meetings are held twice a year.

The interaction between wage developments and monetary, fiscal and structural policies.

Cross-industry social dialogue committee

Employer and employee representatives.

This Committee meets three or four times a year.

All relevant social and employment topics.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is a consultative body of the European Union with 350 members, nominated by national governments and appointed by the Council of the European Union for a renewable 5-year term of office. The latest renewal was in October 2015 for the mandate 2015–2020.

The Tripartite Social Summit contributes to the effectiveness of social dialogue for the drafting and implementation of the economic and social policies of the EU. It is a forum for cross-industry social dialogue, used to conduct a dialogue on general policy issues.

The Liaison Forum, which is organised several times per year by The Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL), offers a regular platform of information, discussion and exchanges of experience on subjects of interest for EU social partners’ representatives.

The Macroeconomic Dialogue is based on the principle that key macroeconomic policy stakeholders and decision makers, and those responsible for wage formation (management and labour organisations) should have a proper understanding of each other’s positions and constraints.

The Social Dialogue Committee is the main body for bipartite social dialogue at European level. It consists of a maximum 66 representatives of the social partners, equally divided between the employers’ and the workers’ representative organisations and including the EU Secretariats of the cross-industry social partners, as well as representatives from the national member organisations on each side. It can also set up technical working groups to discuss specific issues.

Representatives at sectoral level

At sectoral level, the social dialogue underwent a significant development in 1998, when the Commission decided to establish sectoral dialogue committees promoting dialogue between the social partners in the sectors at European level (Commission decision of 20 May 1998 – 98/500/EC). The document laid down precise provisions on the establishment, representativeness and operation of new sectoral committees, intended as central bodies for consultation, joint initiatives and negotiation.

The sectoral social dialogue committees are established with due regard for the autonomy of the social partners. The social partner organisations must apply jointly to the European Commission in order to take part in social dialogue at European level. Eurofound’s representativeness studies have been, since 2006, key indicators for the European Commission when deciding on the representativeness of EU-level social partner organisations. Further details on the process of deciding representativeness can be found on the European Commission’s website.

Sectoral social dialogue committees consist of a maximum of 66 social partner representatives, with an equal number of representatives of both employers and employees. They are chaired either by one of the social partner representatives or, at their request, by a representative of the Commission which, in all cases provides the secretariat for the committees.

As of April 2016, there were 43 sectoral social dialogue committees, which have produced a variety of joint texts and agreements, covering 145 million workers in a range of sectors. The European Commission states that more than 500 texts have been produced as a result of the sectoral social dialogue, ranging from joint opinions and responses to consultations, autonomous agreements and agreements that have been given legal force by means of a European Directive. Recent agreements have included a Framework Agreement on the prevention of sharps injuries in the hospital and healthcare sector concluded by European Hospital & Healthcare Employers' Association (HOSPEEM) and the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) in July 2009, and an agreement on health and safety in the hairdressing sector concluded by UNI-Europa Hair & Beauty and Coiffure EU in April 2012. Most recently, on 21 December 2015, an agreement was signed on information and consultation rights of central administration employees by representatives from the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI) and EPSU and the European Union Public Administration Employers.

Representatives at company level

European Works Councils (EWCs) are standing bodies providing for the information and consultation of employees in Community-scale undertakings and Community-scale groups of undertakings as required by the 1994 European Works Council Directive (Directive 94/45/EC, now updated by the recast Directive 2009/38/EC). EWCs are highly significant in terms of European industrial relations since they represent the first genuinely European institution of interest representation at enterprise level.

The thresholds required for an enterprise to be covered by the Directive are, for a Community-scale undertaking, ‘at least 1,000 employees within the Member States and at least 150 employees in each of at least two Member States’. It is left to Member States to decide on the mechanism for determining the selection of employee representatives, ‘in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity’.

According to figures from the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) around 2,400 multinationals are potentially covered by the EWCs Directive. However, as at 2016, only a total of 1,403 EWCs had been created, of which 1,088 were still active.

The recast Directive strengthens the role and rights of EWCs in a number of areas. Notably, it:

  • reinforces and more clearly defines the information and consultation rights of EWCs;
  • links and more clearly differentiates the information and consultation of EWCs and of national bodies, providing a new definition of ‘transnational matters’ covered by EWCs;
  • gives a greater role to trade unions;
  • entitles EWC members to training without loss of pay;
  • contains rules on adapting EWCs to structural change in the multinational concerned.

Representatives at workplace level

A European company (Societas Europaea (SE)) operates on a Europe-wide basis and under the European Company Statute (ECS) Regulation (Council Regulation (EC) 2157/2001 on the statute for a European company (SE)). Council Directive 2001/86/EC supplementing the ECS stipulates employee involvement in SEs in the form of information and consultation of employees and, in some cases, board-level participation.

EU-based companies may become SEs in four ways:

  • merger;
  • creation of a joint holding company;
  • creation of a subsidiary;
  • when a single EU-based company is transformed into an SE, provided it has had a subsidiary governed by the law of another Member State for at least two years.

There are three possible scenarios for employee involvement in an SE.

  • The special negotiating body (SNB) may decide, with a two-thirds majority, not to open negotiations or to terminate existing negotiations. In this case, national rules on information and consultation of employees come into force and only a European Works Council is constituted.
  • The SNB and the competent bodies of the participating companies conclude an agreement on the involvement of employees according to Article 4 of the Directive.
  • The SNB and the competent bodies of the participating companies fail to reach an agreement or agree voluntarily to apply the obligatory standard rules according to Article 7 of the Directive.

In March 2014, it was reported that some 2,125 SEs had been established, according to the ETUI’s Worker-Participation website. However, the ETUI estimates that only 289 SEs have both normal business activities and more than 5 employees. Germany is home to almost half of the identified normal SEs (138), followed by the Czech Republic (66), France (13) and the Netherlands (13). But in the Czech Republic particularly, the number of normal SEs is likely now to be significantly higher as most Czech SEs are set up as employee-free ‘shelf companies’ by specialised providers. These shelf companies are sold to customers who wish to establish businesses quickly. As, often, little is known about the further development of the workforce after the sale, they have to be classified in the ETUI’s database as ‘UFO SEs’.

Representatives at international level (outside European Social Dialogue)

Outside the formal European social dialogue, European and international agreements also exist, usually classed as transnational company agreements (TCAs). These are defined by the European Commission as

an agreement comprising reciprocal commitments the scope of which extends to the territory of several States and which has been concluded by one or more representatives of a company or a group of companies on the one hand, and one or more workers’ organisations on the other hand, and which covers working and employment conditions and/or relations between employers and workers or their representatives.

According to the 2009 Eurofound report European and international framework agreements: Practical experiences and strategic approaches, TCAs can be subdivided into International Framework Agreements (IFAs) and European Framework Agreements (EFAs). IFAs are signed by Global Union Federations (GUFs) and have a global scope of application, whereas EFAs have a regional (European) scope of application and are signed by European Industry Federations (EIFs), EWCs and/or national unions and central management.

The Commission notes that TCAs have grown in significance over the past decade since the first initiatives in 2000. By early 2012, 224 such agreements had been recorded in 144 companies, mostly with headquarters in Europe, covering over 10 million employees.

The Commission has set up a database of TCAs containing information sheets with details on every company and agreement.

Collective employment relations

The central concern of employment relations is the collective governance of work and employment. This section looks into processes and outcomes of social dialogue, transnational collective bargaining and industrial actions at EU level.

Consultation practices by the Commission

Under Article 154 TFEU, the European Commission, before submitting proposals in the social policy field, has to consult management and labour on the possible direction of that Community action. If, after consultation, the Commission considers Community action advisable, it is obliged to consult management and labour on the content of the envisaged proposal.

For an organisation to be recognised as a partner in European social dialogue, it must be organised at EU level and be capable of taking part in consultations and negotiating agreements. As far as possible, organisations should be representative of all EU Member States, while their national members must be recognised as social partners in their respective countries. Since 2006, representativeness studies have been carried out by Eurofound to help the Commission to determine which organisations are representative – a list of consulted organisations (PDF) is kept by the Commission.

If the social partners ask to deal with the issue by bipartite social dialogue, the Commission will suspend its legislative initiative. This dialogue may lead to contractual relations, including agreements. If the social partners do not reach an agreement, the Commission can still decide to tackle the issue via the normal legislative procedure. If the social partners do reach an agreement, Article 155(2) provides two ways to ensure its implementation: the ‘voluntary route’ relying on national procedures and practices specific to management and labour and the Member States; or the route via ‘implementation by Council decision’, which leads in practice to implementation by Council Directive. These procedures can be used to arrive at both intersectoral and sectoral agreements.

European social dialogue at multiple levels

The European social dialogue is governed legally by Articles 152–155 TFEU. Article 152 states that ‘The Union recognises and promotes the role of the social partners … it shall facilitate dialogue between the social partners, respecting their autonomy’. Article 153 sets out the subjects that can be covered. Articles 154–155 provide a procedure that combines the consultation of the social partners by the Commission with the option to leave social regulation to bipartite agreement between management and labour organised at European level. According to Article 154, the Commission, before submitting proposals in the social policy field, has to consult management and labour on the possible direction of that Community action. Moreover, if, after such consultation, the Commission considers Community action advisable, it is obliged to consult management and labour on the content of the envisaged proposal.

If the social partners ask to deal with the issue by bipartite social dialogue, the Commission will suspend its legislative initiative. The bipartite dialogue may lead to contractual relations, including agreements. If the social partners do not reach an agreement, the Commission can still decide to tackle the issue via the normal legislative procedure. If the social partners do reach an agreement, Article 155(2) provides two ways to ensure its implementation: the ‘voluntary route’ relying on national procedures and practices specific to management and labour and the Member States; or the route via ‘implementation by Council decision’ which leads, in practice, to implementation by Council Directive. These procedures can be used to arrive at both intersectoral and sectoral agreements. For a flowchart of how decision-making works at EU level, see the Better Regulation ‘Toolbox’, tool number 7.

Cross-industry social dialogue

Cross-industry social dialogue is carried out between the cross-sector EU-level social partners, BusinessEurope, UEAPME and CEEP for employers, and ETUC, Eurocadres and CEC for trade unions.

The outcomes of cross-sector social dialogue are many and varied. They can range from agreements negotiated under the TFEU Articles mentioned above, to a range of autonomous agreements, joint opinions and other forms of joint texts.

The cross-sector social dialogue can cover all topics related to employment relations and the labour market. Notable agreements include those on part-time work, fixed-term contracts, parental leave and temporary agency work, all of which have been given legal underpinning by Council Directive, in accordance with the TFEU. The cross-sector social partners have also concluded framework agreements on telework, work-related stress, harassment and violence at work, and inclusive labour markets.

Sectoral social dialogue

Sectoral social dialogue takes place in social dialogue committees, established in individual sectors. This type of dialogue has produced a wide range of joint texts, including agreements (largely on working time within the framework of the Working Time Directive, but also on occupational health and safety agreements) that have been given legal underpinning by Council Directive, to joint opinions, joint statements and a range of guidance texts, toolkits and good practice guides. A wide variety of topics are covered by the sectoral social dialogue, including all aspects of working conditions, vocational training and industrial change, the knowledge society, demographic patterns, enlargement and globalisation. The number of social dialogue committees, currently 43, has increased in recent years, as has the number of texts agreed, and this trend is likely to continue.

The latest official state of play about European sectoral social dialogue is contained in a European Commission staff working document (PDF), issued in July 2010, which states that more than 500 texts have been produced as a result of the sectoral social dialogue, ranging from joint opinions and responses to consultations, to autonomous agreements and agreements that have been given legal force by means of a European Directive.

Social dialogue at company level

At company level, the main mechanisms of social dialogue are worker participation arrangements through EWCs and employee representation arrangements in European Companies. In addition, European or transnational/international company agreements can be concluded between multinational companies and trade unions.

International agreements are signed by GUFs and have a global scope of application. European agreements have a regional (European) scope of application and are signed by EIFs, EWCs and/or national unions and central management.

The number of these agreements has increased significantly since 2000, with only a few signed before that date. Most international agreements address the fundamental social rights or core labour standards contained in the International Labour Organization (ILO) 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

European company agreements are more diverse than international agreements, both in content and procedure. EWCs play a significant role in the negotiation and signature of these agreements, and have signed a majority of them. They also have a significant role in the implementation and monitoring processes of European agreements. These agreements cover a variety of issues, including restructuring, social dialogue, health and safety, human resources management and data protection.

Overview of European social dialogue outcomes

Intersectoral level

Number of agreements

Main topics

Nine high-profile agreements.


High-profile topics include parental leave, fixed-term contracts, temporary work, part-time work, telework, management of change, harassment and violence at work, stress at work and inclusive labour markets.

Sectoral level

Number of agreements

Main topics

There have been 12 sector-level agreements concluded at European level on the basis of Article 155 TFEU.

Working time (seafarers, 1998, mobile staff in aviation, 2000, inland waterways, 2012).

Working conditions (mobile railway workers, 2004).

Health and safety (hairdressing, 2012 and hospital staff, 2009).

Company level

Number of agreements

Main topics

According to the European Commission’s database of transnational agreements, there were 282 agreements in force, as at April 2015.

All topics related to employment relations, restructuring, equality and diversity and other human resource management topics.

The two most prominent levels of social dialogue at European level are the intersectoral and sectoral. In terms of the number of agreements, the sectoral level is most active, reflecting the high number of sectors which engage in social dialogue. In terms of legal impact, the intersectoral level is the most prominent, in that a number of agreements have been given legal underpinning by Council Directive, although some sectoral agreements, notably in the area of working time, have also been given legal underpinning in this way. Company-level social dialogue exists in the form of transnational and European company agreements, as shown above, although their impact is arguably relatively low compared with the other two levels of dialogue.

Coordination of collective bargaining

European Semester

The European Semester is the EU’s annual cycle of economic policy guidance and surveillance, along with the Stability and Growth Pact and other fiscal instruments, during which the Commission undertakes a detailed monitoring and analysis of EU Member States’ plans for budgetary, macroeconomic and structural reforms, and provides them with recommendations for the next 12–18 months. Launched in 2011, the process starts with the Commission’s Annual Growth Survey (AGS), published in November, which outlines economic priorities for the EU and Member States for the coming year. The actual timetable for the Semester starts in January when Member States submit their policy plans (‘National Reform Programmes’) to be assessed at EU level on the basis of EU-level advice (‘guidance’) received, following which they are given individual recommendations (‘country-specific recommendations’) for their national budgetary and reform policies. After they have been discussed in different EU committees and formations, the recommendations are endorsed by the European Council in June and formally adopted by The Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) in July. The role of national social partners in the European Semester is not set out in the European economic governance (the ‘Six-Pack’), despite the fact that the social partners are seen as key agents in the development of the European Semester. Since 2013, the European Commission, along with other European institutions, has called for a closer involvement of the national social partners in the decision-making process of the European Semester, with a view to enhancing the ownership of EU policies, ensuring meaningful implementation and, consequently, increasing their effectiveness. At EU level, the involvement of the social partners in the European Semester process has improved over the past couple of years; they are now consulted before the AGS is published and, in 2015, the country reports were published three months earlier in order to encourage a better discussion of them. In 2014, the European social partners participated directly in discussions at the informal meetings of the employment and social affairs ministers. Nevertheless, EU institutions and European social partners agree that there is a need for even greater involvement on the part of the social partners.

In October 2015, the Commission decided to streamline the European Semester, setting out its aims in a communication on steps towards completing Economic and Monetary Union. This includes, in particular, better integrating the euro area and national dimensions, a stronger focus on employment and social performance, enhanced democratic dialogue, promoting convergence by benchmarking and pursuing best practices, and support for reforms from European Structural and Investment Funds and technical assistance. A Eurofound report Role of the social partners in the European Semester published in 2016 states that, ‘there is a general consensus among the EU-level actors (EU institutions and European social partners) that despite recent progress there is room for improvement in terms of the involvement of the social partners both in the European and the national strand of the European Semester.’

Transnational collective bargaining

As noted above, the number of international and European framework agreements has increased over the past 15 years. These are agreements between representatives of the management of multinational companies and representatives of European-level trade unions at sector level. Some agreements also include employee bodies such as the EWC as negotiating partners. These agreements cover working and employment conditions and/or relations between employers and workers or their representatives.

The EU supports the development of TCAs and has set up an expert group to support this through exchanges of experience, financial support, monitoring and studies. The European Commission’s most recent report on transnational agreements (PDF) was published in 2012.

Industrial disputes

Although Article 151 of the TFEU states that ‘[t]he 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 (…)’, Article 153(5) explicitly excludes the right to strike from the provisions over which the Union has competence to legislate. Yet strike action is one of the fundamental means available to workers and their organisations to promote their economic and social interests. It is the most visible and controversial form of collective action in the event of an industrial dispute and is often seen as the last resort of workers’ organisations in pursuit of their demands. The right to strike is explicitly recognised in the constitutions and/or laws of many countries. It can take many forms, from the complete withdrawal of labour for an indefinite period to more restricted forms of protest.

At EU level, the right to strike is enshrined in Article 28 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (PDF) (entitled ‘Right of collective bargaining and action’).

Workers and employers, or their respective organisations, have, in accordance with EU law and national laws and practices, the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements at the appropriate levels and, in cases of a conflict of interest, to take collective action to defend their interests, including strike action.

Questions on the balance between the right to take collective action and economic freedoms within the single market were raised by the CJEU in the ‘Laval quartet’ of judgments in 2007 and 2008 (Laval (C-341/05), Rüffert (C-346/06), Luxembourg (C-319/06) and Viking (C-438/05)).

In these judgments, the CJEU recognised the right to take collective action, including the right to strike, as a fundamental right which forms an integral part of the general principles of Community law. However, it does not give more substantial guidance about what the fundamental character of the right to collective action means. This has sparked a debate on the right to strike (PDF). Commentators note that the CJEU seems anxious to stress that there are restrictions on the ability to exercise that right, at national and EU level. It follows from Laval that the free movement of services may impose far-reaching restrictions on the right to collective action, at least if the actions taken by a trade union do not aim directly at regulating the employment conditions of its own members (Malmberg, 2010).

The issue of the right to strike was also at the centre of the debate at the International Labour Organisation’s 322nd session of its governing body in Geneva in 2014, specifically on whether the right to strike is covered by ILO Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, adopted in 1948.

At national level, the right to strike is regulated differently in the different Member States. However, trade unions in different countries sometimes coordinate protest actions in order to highlight specific issues. For example, in November 2012, trade unions in Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Spain coordinated protests and strike action in order to protest against austerity. The action was supported by ETUC. Further, in January 2014, trade unions representing workers in air traffic control coordinated strike action in countries across Europe.

Individual employment relations

Individual employment relations are the relationship between the individual worker and their employer. While such employment relations are mainly regulated at national level, this section looks at how such relationships may also be shaped by EU regulation and by the outcomes of European social dialogue.

Start and termination of the employment relationship

There is no minimum working age set at EU level. However, Directive 94/33/EC defines young workers as individuals who are under 18 years of age. The Directive provides for a range of protections that apply to young workers, in areas such as specific risks to their safety, health and development which are a consequence of their lack of experience; of their absence of awareness of existing or potential risks or of the fact that young people have not yet fully matured.

The other Directive relevant to the start of the employment relationship is Directive 91/533 on an employer’s obligation to inform employees of the conditions applicable to the contract or employment relationship. Providing a written declaration as a form of proof of an employment relationship is designed to clarify the legal position of employees who are not covered by a written employment contract or letter of appointment, and, in particular, to give them a better idea of when, where and for whom they are supposed to be working, and, more generally, to give them written proof of the essential elements of this relationship.

Dismissals and the termination of an employment relationship are covered by Directive 98/59/EC on collective redundancies. It provides for the right of workers to be informed and consulted about collective redundancies, including ways and means of avoiding collective redundancies or reducing the number of workers affected, and of mitigating the consequences. Eurofound carries out continuous monitoring of collective redundancies in the EU via its European Monitoring Centre on Change. The information and consultation provisions contained in this Directive are currently under review as part of the Commission’s REFIT process.

Entitlements and obligations

Parental, maternity and paternity leave

Parental and maternity leave are covered by EU Directives (Directive 96/34/EC on parental leave and Directive 92/85/EEC on the safety and health of pregnant workers). These Directives provide for an individual’s right to parental leave of at least three months, and for a continuous period of maternity leave of at least 14 weeks allocated before and/or after confinement in accordance with national legislation and/or practice’. The maternity leave must include compulsory leave of at least two weeks allocated before and/or after the birth in accordance with national legislation and/or practice. A Commission proposal for a new Directive on pregnant workers was withdrawn in 2015 under the REFIT initiative to make EU law simpler and to reduce regulatory costs.

Sick leave

Sick leave is not provided for at EU level, although the CJEU has ruled on issues such as the definition of sick leave. Sick leave is provided for by different processes in different EU Member States, including national agreements, sectoral agreements and individual employer agreements and arrangements. Sick pay is also provided for in different ways according to country, including government financing or joint/employer health insurance funds. The level of sick pay and issues such as the termination of contract while on sick leave vary according to Member State and may also be the subject of case law in some countries.

Retirement age

Retirement age differs across Europe. However, there is a trend towards increasing the retirement age in order to address the challenges related to the ageing population. There have also been initiatives in some countries, particularly those with a pay-as-you-go system, to increase the number of years worked to qualify for a full pension, and to change the calculation method, in order to ensure the financial sustainability of the system. There are also changes occurring in many countries to harmonise the retirement ages of men and women.

The European Commission issued a white paper in 2012, in which it identified a number of pension challenges for the EU. It does not recommend a retirement age, but it does discuss the issue of increasing the labour market participation of women and older workers. The Commission states that the trend in recent decades towards earlier retirement has been reversed, although more needs to be done. Labour force participation is currently still too low in the age groups just below retirement age and progress in changing this is too limited. Although many recent reforms are intended to increase the eligibility age for pensions, their success depends on better opportunities for older women and men to stay in the labour market.

The social partners have a role, to varying degrees, according to country, in the administration and running of pension systems and in the reform of national systems. More information can be found in Eurofound report Social partners’ involvement in pension reform in the EU, 2013.


EU competencies in the area of pay

Pay does not fall under the jurisdiction of the TFEU, as stated expressly by Article 153(5). There have been initiatives from the trade union side to coordinate collective bargaining outcomes across EU Member States, most recently the Doorn group, which began an initiative in 1998, aimed at developing cross-border coordination of collective bargaining in order to avoid wage competition and enable trade unions to develop bargaining strategies that can lead to real salary increases. The European Semester process addresses and monitors wage-setting, among other policy areas. In the 2016 Joint Employment Report (PDF), the Commission states that wage-setting has been displaying continued wage moderation and that reforms have strengthened wage-setting mechanisms that promote the alignment of wage developments to productivity and support households’ disposable income, with a particular focus on minimum wages. It also notes that, overall, recent wage developments appear to be quite balanced in most Member States and have contributed to rebalancing within the euro zone. Real wages move broadly in line with productivity in most Member States, with a few exceptions.

In 2014, a Eurofound report Changes to wage-setting mechanisms in the context of the crisis and the EU’s new economic governance regime analysed whether any aspects of wage-setting arrangements or other features of industrial relations had been the subject of country-specific recommendations under the European Semester system. The report found that, in some Member States, changes to wage bargaining and pay-setting mechanisms had been prompted by EU policies, such as the country-specific recommendations, or as part of the reform programmes instigated by the troika of European and international institutions (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) as a condition of financial assistance packages to a few countries. It is among this last group of countries, which includes Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Romania and Spain, that wage-setting regimes have undergone the most extensive changes.

Collectively agreed pay across EU member states

There are a range of bargaining systems in operation across the EU. In some countries, such as the Nordic and continental countries (such as Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands) and Italy, the predominant bargaining level is sectoral, although company-level bargaining also sets wages in countries such as Germany. In others, such as, until recently, Ireland, there are multiple levels of bargaining, combining national agreements with local, sectoral and company-level agreements. In the UK and now predominantly in Ireland, bargaining takes place primarily at company level.

For more detailed information on the most recent outcomes on collectively agreed pay, please consult Eurofound’s collective wage bargaining portal or Eurofound’s most recent annual update on developments in collectively agreed pay. See also a 2015 Eurofound report on pay in Europe in different wage-bargaining regimes.

Working time

Working time is defined as ‘any period during which the worker is working, at the employer’s disposal and carrying out his activities or duties, in accordance with national laws and/or practice’ (Directive 2003/88/EC). This section briefly summarises regulation and issues regarding working time, overtime and part-time work as well as working time flexibility at EU level.

EU competencies in the area of working time

  • a limit to weekly working hours, which must not exceed 48 hours on average, including any overtime;
  • a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours in every 24;
  • a rest break during working hours if the worker is on duty for longer than 6 hours;
  • a minimum weekly rest period of 24 uninterrupted hours for each 7-day period, in addition to a daily rest of 11 hours;
  • paid annual leave of at least 4 weeks per year.

There is also extra protection for night work:

  • average working hours must not exceed 8 hours per 24-hour period;
  • night workers must not perform heavy or dangerous work for longer than 8 hours in any 24-hour period;
  • night workers have the right to free health assessments and, under certain circumstances, to transfer to day work.

The Working Time Directive is a health and safety Directive, aimed at safeguarding the health and safety of EU workers by ensuring that their working time is kept within certain limits and that they take adequate breaks and rest periods. The original 1993 Directive was amended in 2003. There are a number of derogations and exemptions to the Directive, covering specific sectors and occupations. The Directive also contains an opt-out clause, which permits Member States not to apply the maximum 48-hour weekly working limit, if the individual worker voluntarily agrees to this. The UK, in particular, makes widespread use of this provision.

The Directive is currently under review by the Commission, with specific reference to the opt-out provision and definitions of what constitutes on-call working, in the light of recent CJEU judgments. The EU-level social partners have been unable to agree on a revision of the text, and so the Commission is currently working on the revision.

Collectively agreed working time across EU member states

Working time is regulated in a range of ways across EU Member States. National sectoral collective agreements may provide for working time limits and breaks, particularly in those countries where the sectoral level is the dominant form of collective bargaining. In other countries, working time regulation may be bargained at national or company level, or at a mixture of two or more levels.

More detailed information on working time (including annual leave, statutory and collectively agreed working time) can be found in Eurofound report Developments in collectively agreed working time 2014.

Related EU developments

The main topic of discussion between the EU-level cross-sector social partners has been the revision of the working time Directive. The Commission wanted to revise the Directive in order to regulate areas such as the definition of on-call working and to examine the opt-out provision. It asked the social partners whether they wished to try to negotiate on a revision. The social partners subsequently tried to negotiate, but ultimately failed to reach an agreement, largely on those two issues. There are no recent agreements on working time recorded in the European Commission’s database of social dialogue texts. Some TCAs may include the organisation of working time or the regulation of overtime as part of the general global agreement.

Health and well-being

Maintaining health and well-being should be high-priority for workers and employers alike. Health is an asset closely associated with a person’s quality of life and longevity, as well as their ability to work. A healthy economy depends on a healthy workforce; organisations lose productivity through ill-health of their workers. This section looks into EU provisions and developments affecting psychosocial risks and health and safety across EU Member States.

More detailed figures are available from Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey.

EU competencies in the area of health and well-being

Article 153 TFEU gives the EU the authority to adopt Directives on safety and health at work. Health and safety at work is covered by the Health and Safety Framework Directive (89/391/EEC), which places certain obligations on employers to implement preventive measures to improve health and safety at work.

Following on from the framework Directive, a number of daughter Directives were passed, notably Directives:

  • 89/654 EEC (workplace requirements);
  • 89/655 EEC (work equipment);
  • 89/656 EEC (personal protective equipment);
  • 90/269 EEC (manual handling of loads);
  • 90/270 EEC (display screen equipment).

Other Directives cover aspects such as working time (the Working Time Directive), the protection of pregnant workers and the protection of young people at work, while other EU Directives cover exposure to dangerous substances (chemical, physical and biological agents).

The EU has also put into place a series of strategic frameworks on health and safety in order to better protect workers from work-related accidents and diseases. The latest is the EU Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Strategic Framework 2014–2020 (PDF), which identifies key challenges and strategic objectives for health and safety at work, presents key actions and identifies instruments to address these.

In the area of psychosocial risks, the EU-level cross-sector social partners have negotiated an agreement on stress at work, and on bullying and harassment at work.

The Framework agreement on work-related stress is an autonomous agreement signed in 2004. The objective of the agreement is to provide employers and workers with a framework to identify and prevent or manage problems of work-related stress.

The Framework agreement on violence and harassment at work was signed by the social partners in 2007, with the aim of combating all unacceptable behaviour that can lead to harassment and violence at the workplace.

The REFIT process is intending to undertake a series of evaluations and fitness checks in the area of EU legislation governing safety and health at work.

Situation across EU member states

In 2012, according to Eurostat, there were just under 2.5 million non-fatal accidents that resulted in at least four calendar days of absence from work and 3,515 fatal accidents in the EU28. These figures marked a substantial reduction in relation to 2009, when there had been approximately 313,000 more non-fatal accidents and 310 more fatal accidents. Men are considerably more likely than women to have a non-fatal accident or to die at work. In the EU28, almost four out of every five (78.5 %) non-fatal accidents at work and 19 out of every 20 (95.6 %) fatal accidents at work involved men.

More detailed figures are available from Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey.

Related EU developments

There is a substantial body of EU legislation in place that regulates health and well-being at work. At present, the European Commission has made a commitment to review this body of legislation in order to ascertain its effectiveness. This review is ongoing and contained in the Commission’s 2016 work programme (PDF).

The social partners at cross-sector EU level have engaged with a range of topics related to health and well-being, including stress at work and harassment and violence at work. There have also been a number of relevant initiatives at sectoral level, for example on psychosocial risks in the rail sector.

Skills, learning and employability

Skills are the passport to employment; the better skilled an individual, the more employable they are. Good skills also tend to secure better quality jobs and better earnings. This section looks into EU provisions and developments addressing skills, training and employability across EU Member States.

EU competencies in the area of skills and employability

The main EU-level initiative in the area of skills and employability is the Agenda for new skills and jobs. This initiative was launched in 2010 and is part of the EU’s Europe 2020 strategy. It aims to help the EU to reach its employment target of 75% of the working-age population in work by 2020. The initiative aims to try to address skills mismatches and to help individuals to keep pace with ever-changing demands for skills. It aims to help the EU to meet its targets of improving education levels by reducing school drop-outs to 10 % or fewer, and by increasing the completion of tertiary or equivalent education to at least 40 % in 2020. Its actions include the creation of an EU Skills Panorama in order to better anticipate future demands for skills and to meet current skills demands. It also aims to equip individuals with the right mix of skills to function in today’s labour market.

Situation across EU member states

In 2014, the proportion of people aged 25 to 64 in the EU28 who participated in education or training was 10.7%, according to Eurostat; a share that was 1.6 percentage points higher than the corresponding share for 2009. The reference period for the participation in education and training is the four weeks preceding the interview. Denmark, Sweden and Finland stood out from the other EU Member States as they reported considerably higher proportions of their respective populations participating in lifelong learning in the four weeks preceding the interview, ranging from one-quarter to one-third. France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom were the only other Member States where the participation rate in 2014 already exceeded the 15% target set by the EU by 2020. By contrast, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia and Greece reported lifelong learning participation rates of 3.0% or less.

Related EU developments

There have been a number of joint texts agreed by the EU sectoral social partners in the past few years on the subject of training and lifelong learning. These include joint conclusions and recommendations of a lifelong learning and enlargement project in the finance sector, concluded in November 2015, a first joint framework of actions on competencies, qualifications and anticipation of change in the European electricity sector, published in January 2015, a declaration on future ICT skills needs in the telecommunications sector, published in November 2014, and a joint declaration on matching skills and jobs in the European postal sector, agreed in November 2014.

There have been no relevant, targeted joint texts at cross-sector level since the framework of actions for the lifelong development of skills and qualifications, agreed in 2002.

Work organisation

Work organisation underpins economic and business development and has significant consequences for productivity, innovation and working conditions. Eurofound research finds that some types of work organisation are associated with a better quality of work and employment. Therefore, developing or introducing different forms of work organisation are of particular interest because of the expected effect on productivity, efficiency and competitiveness of companies, as well as on workers’ working conditions. Ongoing research by Eurofound, based on EurWORK, the European Working Conditions Survey and the European Company Survey, monitors developments in work organisation.

On average, the European Company Survey 2013 showed that, between 2010 and 2013, 42% of establishments with 10 or more employees reported changes in the use of technology, 33% introduced changes in ways to coordinate and allocate the work to workers and another 18% saw changes in their working time arrangements.

Related EU developments

At cross-sector level, the EU social partners concluded a framework agreement on teleworking in 2002. There have also been some sectoral-level agreements on this theme, such as a joint declaration on teleworking in the insurance sector in February 2015, and a joint declaration on this topic in the electricity sector, concluded in 2002.

A Eurofound report ‘Work organisation and employee involvement in Europe’ published in 2013, looks at work organisation and employee involvement, exploring the opportunities open to employees in workplaces across Europe to participate in decision-making, either in the context of their job or in relation to wider organisational issues affecting their work. The research found that employee involvement can support employers’ objectives to raise levels of work performance and can also enhance the quality of employees’ lives at work.

Equality and non-discrimination at work

Existing EU legislation

Equality between women and men is one of the EU's founding values: the principle of equal pay for equal work is included in the Treaties of Rome.

Initially the principle of non-discrimination was applied to gender-based discrimination in relation to equal pay for women and men (Article 119 EC, now Article 157 TFEU) as the ‘pay gap’ between male and female earnings was – and still is – significant in every Member State. The concept of ‘pay’ was given a particularly wide definition so as to include fringe benefits and, eventually, occupational pensions. The legislation to promote equal pay depended on being able to show that there were comparable workers of the opposite sex whose pay was higher. However, occupational segregation in terms of gender, which meant that in many workplaces certain occupations were predominantly or exclusively occupied by one gender, made it very difficult in practice to identify such a comparator. Gender equality is now a key part of the Treaty on the European Union (Art 3 TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (Art 8 TFEU). Union law also allows the EU to adopt minimum requirements, as well as to support and complement the activities of the Member States on the integration of people excluded from the labour market, as well as promoting equality between women and men on labour market opportunities and treatment at work (Art 153 TFEU). Furthermore, gender equality is central to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which states that equality between women and men must be ensured in all areas, including employment, work and pay (Art 24). As regards secondary EU law, several Directives setting minimum requirements to ensure equal opportunities between women and men have been adopted since 1976:

  • Directive 2010/41 on the application of the principle of equal treatment between men and women engaged in an activity in a self-employed capacity;
  • Directive 2006/54 on the implementation of the principle of equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation (recast);
  • Directive 2004/113 implementing the principle of equal treatment between men and women in the access to and supply of goods and services;
  • Directive 79/7 on the progressive implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women in matters of social security.

In 2014, the Commission published a recommendation on strengthening the principle of equal pay between men and women through transparency. In addition to the above, the European Commission has proposed EU accession to an international Convention to fight violence against women. The Women on Boards proposal for a law to help women fill 40% of non-executive board-member positions in publicly listed companies, (with the exception of SMEs) also needs to be mentioned here. Gender equality is one of the six policy domains under the ‘Equal opportunities on the labour market’, part of the European Pillar of Social Rights.

Related EU developments

There is an ongoing discussion at EU level about issues such as the gender pay gap and the participation of women in decision-making. The European Commission has designated a section of its website to the gender pay gap. It organises an annual European Equal Pay Day, by which it attempts to raise awareness of the gender pay gap. The European Commission also has a strategy for equality between women and men, which sets out its work programme on gender equality for the period 2010–2015. The Commission has also organised exchanges of good practice on the gender pay gap on a national level.

EU leaders also adopted a European Pact for Gender Equality (PDF) in 2011, which made fighting the gender pay gap a priority, by encouraging action at Member State and at EU level in equal pay for equal work and work of equal value.

In 2005, the cross-sector EU-level social partners agreed a framework of actions on gender equality, which was evaluated in 2009. There have also been sectoral initiatives and joint texts on equality in sectors such as the rail sector and public transport.

There has also been an EU-level debate on the issue of quotas for women on the boards of organisations. In 2012, the European Commission issued a proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on improving the gender balance among non-executive directories of companies listed on stock exchanges and related measures, in which it set out the aim of attaining a 40% objective of the underrepresented sex in non-executive board-member positions in publicly listed companies, with the exception of small and medium enterprises. This proposal is still under discussion. At the beginning of 2015, the European Commission released figures showing that the average share of women on the boards of the largest publicly listed companies across the EU had reached 20.2% by October 2014. This represents an increase of more than 8 percentage points since October 2010, when the European Commission first put the issue of women on boards high on the political agenda. A Eurofound article Too few women in leadership positions across the EU gives an overview of women in leadership positions.

Special EU funding mechanisms on working life 

Besides social partners and bodies at EU level, there are two more EU funds that affect working life across EU Member States and which are unique in their setting: The European Social Fund (ESF) and the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (EGF).

European Social Fund

The European Social Fund (ESF) is Europe’s main financial instrument for supporting jobs, helping people to obtain better jobs and ensuring fairer job opportunities for all EU citizens. Its aim is to invest in Europe’s human capital and provides financing of €10 billion a year to improve job prospects for Europeans, in particular those who find it difficult to enter the labour market.

The ESF works by funding local, regional and national employment-related projects around the EU, ranging from small projects to national-level ones that promote training for a country’s entire population. The ESF projects vary considerably in their nature, size and aims. They also address a range of target groups, such as education systems, teachers and schoolchildren, young people, older jobseekers and potential entrepreneurs.

In France, for example, the Tempo project (Travail, Emploi et Population) is helping businesses apply recent national legislation on preventing undue hardship at work and on equality issues – particularly for older workers. This requires negotiations on working conditions for this group and action plans. The project is managed by Anact, the national agency for better working conditions, along with regional associations which will organise ‘social clusters’ of companies to share innovative approaches and good practice in applying the new rules and achieving real benefits for their workers.

Further, in Germany, ‘The challenge abroad’ programme aims to increase the training and employment opportunities for disadvantaged young people and people with disabilities. Under this plan, up to 200 unemployed young people can gain work experience in Malta, France or Spain. The duration of the internship is flexible but is at least six weeks and can be extended up to six months.

European Globalisation Fund

The European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (EGF) provides support to people losing their jobs as a result of major structural changes in world trade patterns due to globalisation, such as when a large company shuts down or production is moved outside the EU, or as a result of the global economic and financial crisis. The EGF has a maximum annual budget of €150 million for the period 2014–2020 and can fund up to 60% of the cost of projects designed to help workers who have been made redundant to find another job or to set up their own business.

The EGF can usually be used only where over 500 workers are made redundant by a single company (including its suppliers and downstream producers), or if a large number of workers are laid off in a particular sector in one or more neighbouring regions. EGF cases are managed and implemented by national or regional authorities. Each project runs for two years.

During 2013–2014, the EGF helped a total of 27,610 workers, who had been dismissed due to the economic crisis and the effects of globalisation, to find new job opportunities. According to a report on the activities of the EGF (PDF) during this period, the EGF provided more than €114.4 million to assist workers in 13 Member States (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Spain) in their transition and towards new job opportunities. The EGF funding was matched by another €94.1 million from national resources.

European Pillar of Social Rights

In March 2016, the European Commission issued a preliminary outline for a new European Pillar of Social Rights. The aim of the Pillar is to identify a number of essential principles common to euro zone Member States, focusing on their needs and challenges in employment and social policies. Accordingly, throughout 2016, the Commission will engage in a debate with EU authorities, social partners, civil society and citizens on the content and role of the Pillar, with the aim of moving towards a deeper and fairer Economic and Monetary Union. The outcome of this debate will feed into a final text of the European Pillar of Social Rights.

The aim is that the Pillar will build on and complement the EU body of law in order to guide policies in a number of fields essential for well-functioning and fair labour markets and welfare systems. This will not replace existing rights, but rather offer a way to assess the performance of national employment and social policies. Once established, the Pillar will become the reference framework for screening the employment and social performance of participating Member States, driving reforms at national level and serving as a compass for the renewed process of convergence within the euro zone.


Malmberg, J. (2010), The impact of the ECJ judgments on Viking, Laval, Rüffert and Luxembourg on the practice of collective bargaining and the effectiveness of social action, European Parliament, Brussels.



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