Portuguese Council Presidency: European Pillar of Social Rights must be made binding

Manuela Kropp, Project Manager, RLS Brussels Office

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen 40 million people moved into short-time work across the EU, and over 16 million are now unemployed, 2 million more than a year earlier, before the pandemic hit. Aside from the impact of COVID-19, in-work poverty has also been on the rise for years, meaning that more and more people cannot make ends meet despite being in work. One in 10 workers falls below the poverty threshold, equivalent to a 12% rise in recent years. One of the main reasons for this development is rising rents across all EU Member States, leading, as it were, to a creeping expropriation of wage earners; another key factor is the decline in collective-bargaining coverage in many EU Member States: in at least 14 of these countries, more than half of workers have no collective agreement in place, and the collective bargaining rate is above 80% in only seven Member States. In some Member States, the pandemic is already being used as a pretext for curbing workers’ rights, according to European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) General Secretary Luca Visentini, speaking at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) conference Towards a new socio-ecological contract, held on 3 February 2021.

The Portuguese EU Council Presidency has recently announced that it will place the European Pillar of Social Rights and the European social model centre stage; the European Commission will present an action plan to this end in March 2021.

However, the effectiveness of these measures will depend on how they are actually implemented in Member States, given that up to now, the European Pillar of Social Rights has been just a non-binding collection of 20 social principles that was endorsed in November 2017 but has not contributed to an improvement in the social situation in the EU. And that means that the European Pillar of Social Rights and the Social Progress Protocol must finally be incorporated into the EU Treaties so that social protection and workers’ rights take priority over internal market freedoms – something that the ETUC has been demanding for years. To take one example, Principle 6 of the Social Pillar, entitled “Wages”, states that workers “have the right to fair wages that provide for a decent standard of living”. If this principle were actually put into practice, it would improve the lives of millions of workers. Other social principles include gender equality, the promotion of social dialogue, access to health care and access to essential services such as water, energy and transport.

Given the social and ecological crisis, it is clear that after the pandemic there must be no return to the old ‘normal’, and instead Member States’ recovery programmes must address the socio-ecological transformation. Of the nine planetary boundaries, four (land use, integrity of the biosphere, climate change, material cycles) have already been exceeded, meaning that we are facing ever tighter time limits for combating climate change.

The Green New Deal, as championed by left-wing forces for many years, also requires effective social protection through extensive collective-bargaining coverage, the creation of decent jobs, the strengthening of trade-union and workers’ rights, adequate minimum wages, further education and training, and a welfare system that provides a safety net against poverty. This includes treating platform workers as what they are, i.e. employees who must be entitled to the same protection as all other workers.

The social and economic upheavals awaiting us in terms of the ecological transformation of our societies are clear from the sheer number of workers in individual key sectors: 350,000 people work in the coal sector across the EU, and no fewer than 14 million (including indirect employment) in the automotive industry. If the ecological transition is to succeed here, not least by massively expanding renewable energies and establishing an eco-friendly mobility industry, including the scaling back of the automotive sector, major investment will be required – in alternative production (focusing on vehicles for rail and local public transport) and of course in education and training, care work, health care, and so on. This naturally also involves creating decent jobs in these sectors with earnings above the minimum wage, ensuring further education and training for those employed in the fossil-fuel industries and giving workers a say in the corporate transition by strengthening economic democracy.

Therefore, the European Pillar of Social Rights must not remain just a theoretical construct but must actually become binding law to boost the rights of trade unions and workers. Only then can a just transition succeed in the energy and automotive sectors, and only then will the affected workers support the transformation.

An example of how not to go about this was provided by recent statements by EU Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni: in late January 2021, he justified calling for greater involvement of the trade unions in the development of national recovery plans by claiming that the desired reforms of the labour markets and the pension system would otherwise be unenforceable. These reforms are aimed at lowering protection levels and making the labour market more flexible, and so ultimately undermine the required socio-ecological transformation of our societies, as does the reinstatement of the stringent EU debt rules which is currently being discussed, because this would stifle many necessary investments.

This makes it even more important that all progressive forces in civil society and the various parliaments oppose this and fight for a social Green New Deal and a binding European Pillar of Social Rights.