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EU and Brexit: A Seat At The Table For The Social Partners - by Peter Scherrer

As the dust was settling on the regrettable British referendum presaging the UK’s departure from the EU, one bit of potentially good news received scant attention.

For more than 30 years, the EU has been enabling employers’ and workers’ representatives to negotiate and reach agreements that improve working conditions and workers’ rights across Europe. During this period, at cross-sectoral level, the so-called European Social Dialogue has chalked up a list of achievements covering part-time work, parental leave, workplace stress and harassment and violence at work, lifelong learning and more, as well as a series of joint autonomous work programmes.

Besides, more than 40 different industrial sectors have also launched their own Social Dialogue committees, under the EU umbrella, negotiating concrete benefits for workers ranging from train drivers to hairdressers. On Monday 27 June the social partners – the European Trade Union Confederation and employers’ organisations BUSINESSEUROPE, CEEP and UEAPME – together with the European Commission and Council, signed a joint statement pledging ‘

A New Start for Social Dialogue’. They jointly expressed that this new start should lead to more substantial involvement of social partners in the European Semester, a stronger emphasis on capacity building of national social partners, a strengthened involvement of social partners in EU policy- and law-making and a clearer relation between social partners’ agreements and the better regulation agenda.

Earlier in June, for the first time ever the Council of the European Union adopted conclusions on strengthening European Social Dialogue, recognising that “social dialogue is a crucial factor and a beneficial tool for a well-functioning social market economy”, and calling on Member States to involve the social partners closely in the design and implementation of policies. This is another significant step in formalising the role of unions in EU policy-making.

It was Jacques Delors who launched a structured framework for a dialogue between trade unions and employers in the EU, in 1985, at Val Duchesse in Brussels. It was part of an important process of involving in the EU’s construction those who know the work place most closely, both companies and working people, but also showing that the EU had something to offer them – a cornerstone of the EU’s social dimension.

But the results of European Social Dialogue in recent years have been disappointing. One problem has been hesitation, and sometimes a clear “NO” to engaging fully by negotiating within the Social Dialogue on the part of employers’ associations. During the economic crisis, in some EU member states the National Social Dialogue was simply non-existent or failed to protect workers against worsening employment conditions (embodied in a range of insecure and precarious contracts, on-call and involuntary part-time work, false freelancing and online platforms).

Job losses occurred even in countries with a good to excellent economic performance. Wages have failed to keep up with productivity gains. This is why, in some countries, where social partners did not conclude agreements or do not have the capacity to do so, setting minimum wages is more important than ever before. But, a significant precondition for a successful European Social Dialogue, with tangible results in the member states, is a functioning National Social Dialogue.

Read more: A Seat At The Table For The Social Partners

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