Social affairs Council takes stock of information and consultation initiatives

At their meeting on 17 April 1997, EU labour and social affairs ministers reviewed reports on the work of the Davignon Group on employee involvement, the outcomes of the informal social affairs Council in March, and the Round Table on information and consultation hosted by the Dutch Presidency on 15 April. The Labour and Social Affairs Council also considered proposals on the burden of proof in sex discrimination cases and equal opportunities for men and women regarding access to employment, training and promotion.

Information, consultation and involvement

Meeting on 17 April 1997, the Labour and Social Affairs Council of Ministers took stock of initiatives by the European Commission and the Council Presidency aimed at improving information, consultation and participation mechanisms for employees. Padraig Flynn, the commissioner responsible for employment, industrial relations and social affairs, highlighted the importance of such initiatives in the light of the Renault crisis (EU9703108F). He also reported on the current status of the work by the high-level expert working group on worker involvement.

Davignon group

The so-called Davignon group (named after its chair, Etienne Davignon, former Vice-president of the European Commission and president of Société Général de Belgique) was launched in November 1996, charged with examining the role of employee information, consultation and participation in new proposals for a European Company Statute. It is hoped that the group's report will help break the deadlock on this proposal, which has been on the table (in various forms) since the 1970s.

Mr Flynn expressed his hope that members of the group would be able to agree their report unanimously by mid-May (as they subsequently did - EU9705128N). The Council will discuss the report's findings at its meeting on 12 June.

Round Table on information and consultation

Ministers also recalled the conclusions of the informal labour and social affairs Council meeting in Rotterdam on 14-15 March 1997. At this meeting, the Dutch Presidency committed itself to setting up a Round Table discussion forum with the social partners to discuss the possibility for the establishment of a code of conduct for multinationals in cases of large-scale restructuring EU9704118F. The Presidency had also invited the Commission to examine the impact of Community subsidies on company investment and location decisions, as well as the possibility of devising a mechanism for the mediation of transnational disputes.

The current President of the Council, Dutch employment and social affairs minister Ad Melkert, provided a brief summary of the Presidency's conclusions, drawn as a result of the Round Table discussions with the social partners on 15 April:

  • information and consultation of workers are essential elements of a widely shared culture of labour relations in Europe. It is part of a concept of industrial relations which is based on dialogue and partnership;
  • information and consultation contributes to the achievement of competitiveness and social cohesion. In the context of the globalisation of capital flows and industrial strategies, and taking account of the profound structural changes currently taking place in Europe, these are essential workers' rights, which, if they are implemented correctly, contribute to the efficiency and social acceptance of societal restructuring;
  • to achieve this, information and consultation has to take place in good time, without, however, undermining management's prerogative to make the final decision;
  • in order to make further progress towards the enhancement of the acquis communautaireand in order to remedy the failings and weaknesses of current provisions, the Commission will carry out an assessment of existing measures in the area of information and consultation. The Commission will aim to issue the necessary proposals to complete the current framework, as well as the current system of sanctions; and
  • the social partners agreed to jointly examine (in the context of the Social Dialogue Committee) - in the short term - the possibility of drawing up a common position concerning the implementation of information and consultation measures. In the medium term, they hope to undertake an examination of the social consequences of restructuring.

The Labour and Social Affairs Council to be held on 12 June will be informed of the progress made in this area.

My Flynn stressed that he would now proceed without delay in initiating the first round of consultations with the social partners on a Community instrument on rules governing information and consultation at the member state level.

The work of the Employment and Labour Market Committee

There was a short debate among labour and social affairs ministers about the work programme of the Employment and Labour Market Committee which was established by a Council Decision in December 1996 (EU9702105N). The Committee is charged with supporting the exchange of experience on labour market trends and employment policies in the member states. At the beginning of each year it draws up an annual work programme in line with the priorities of the Council.

The priorities for the current year are as follows:

  • follow-up of the December 1996 Dublin European Council meeting. This involves the development of common indicators on employment matters and an exploration of the possibilities for "benchmarking", the establishment of an information system concerning the implementation of multiannual programmes (which reflect the implementation by the member states of the priorities defined by the European Council), exchange of information on labour market trends in the member states, and analysis and debates on different themes related to employment; and
  • preparation of an interim report for the European Council meeting in Amsterdam in June 1997, and of a joint employment report for the European Council in Luxembourg in December 1997 .

The Committee has so far met three times, and the Council expressed its satisfaction with the operation of this new consultative forum. Labour and social affairs ministers also expressed their desire to establish contacts with other committees such as the Economic Policy Committee.

Burden of proof in sex discrimination cases

On 17 July 1996, the Commission adopted a proposal for a Council Directive on the burden of proof in sex discrimination cases (based on the social policy Agreement, and not covering the UK). This proposal aims to provide for a sharing of the burden of proof in such cases between the plaintiff and the defendant. Until now, this burden rested with the plaintiff. Some of the delegations from national labour and social affairs ministries stated that the current proposal formed a good basis for agreement between the members of the Council. Commissioner Flynn, however, announced the publication of an amended proposal, taking into account the Opinion adopted by the European Parliament (EP) at its first reading on 10 April 1997. The EP's comments primarily refer to the scope of application of the Directive, the definition of "indirect discrimination" and the derogation envisaged for certain cases, to take account of the peculiarities of the different legal systems in the European Union.

The Council asked to Commission to present its amended proposal as soon as possible, in order for the Council to be able to reach a common position before its next session.

Equal treatment

The Council had a renewed debate on the proposed Directive amending Directive 76/207/CEC on equal treatment for men and women regarding access to employment, training and promotion and working conditions. The Commission maintains that this modification is desirable to clarify the legal situation following the European Court of Justice's judgment of 17 October 1995 in theKalanke case, to make clear that positive action remains lawful and is to be encouraged. However, the majority of Council members contest the need for such an amendment. Many argued that further moves should await not only clarification from the Court, but also the results of the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC). A revision and reinforcement of Article 119 of the Treaty is in fact on the agenda for the IGC (EU9704117F) The Council confirmed its continuing support for positive action.

Conclusion

In light of the imminent general elections in the UK and the proximity of the Intergovernmental Conference in Amsterdam in June, the labour and social affairs ministers restricted themselves primarily to a debate on ongoing business. The Labour and Social Affairs Council on 12 June therefore remains crucial for decisions on the future framework of employee information and consultation, as the Dutch social affairs minister, Ad Melkert, has shown himself determined to steer the Council towards operational conclusions on the various proposals on this issue by this date. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC)

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