Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights at the European Union
Germany will take on the Presidency of the Council of the European Union at a critical moment for employment and social policy issues, at a time when overarching global trends have a marked impact on the way we live and work in the EU today.
We are currently facing a crisis that no one imagined we would have to go through just a few months ago. And as we are working together in the EU to get on top of it, the global transformations continue and are even accelerating. On the one hand, the EU aspires to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, with the European Green Deal as our flagship strategy towards a fair and socially just environmental transition. On the other hand, digitalisation and new technologies continue to profoundly transform workplaces, industry and many business sectors throughout Europe. The massive use of teleworking during the home confinements further underlines the trend. Further, demographic change will have serious implications for our care and pension systems. Grassroots activism for sustainable globalisation is on the rise, demanding a guarantee of decent working conditions in supply chains, for example. In order to protect our values and promote our European way of life, we must be at the vanguard of shaping fair, socially equitable policies. In other words, to get out of this crisis and reap the benefits that emerge from the current transformation processes, they must be fair and socially responsible for everybody.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, herself a former Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, is a firm advocate of a strong social Europe for just transitions. The implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights – the set of 20 principles and rights that all EU institutions and the Member States proclaimed in November 2017 – remains our compass for better working and living conditions throughout the EU to overcome the crisis and master the transitions. In this vein, in January 2020 the Commission outlined its vision for a Europe in which nobody gets left behind and initiated a broad consultation among all stakeholders – the Member States, regions, civil society, social partners, and industry – on how to reinforce and implement the Pillar.
The EU and Member States must all take the economic and social implications of the crisis-response, as well as the green, digital, and demographic transitions into account from the outset. We must apply all possible instruments to mitigate adverse consequences. But in order to make the Pillar work, national, regional and local authorities, social partners and relevant stakeholders on all levels must play an active role. In parallel and in conjunction with our international partners, the EU strives to ensure decent working conditions across the world. We will only succeed by working together. Germany’s priorities in the areas of labour and social policy for its 2020 Council Presidency closely mirror those of the Commission.
1. The future of work along the dimensions of platform economy, reskilling and upskilling, and artificial intelligence
If we really want to make sure that no one is left behind, we must empower people and give them the tools they need to succeed in our changing world. The Commission attaches very high importance to skills: it is no coincidence that the first principle in the European Pillar of Social Rights concerns education, training, and lifelong learning. In order to bring those people who have unfortunately lost their jobs during the crisis back into work and to ensure that workers stay employed in regard of the ongoing transformations, skills are key. There is a significant gap between the skills of the workforce and the demands by the companies. This trend is further reinforced in the significant recovery efforts that many companies have to go through and by the parallel transition towards a greener and more digital economy. In the digital economy alone, around a million vacancies remain unfilled. The Paris Climate Agreement could lead to global job losses of around six million and job gains of 24 million1 although certain sectors, businesses and sometimes entire regions would be affected more than others. We must address these challenges by investing in training and research on which skills are needed.
Workers must not only be equipped to take the new jobs created in a new, greener economy or to move from one job to another. We must support them as they embrace changes in the jobs they have now as well. Our Skills Agenda will support all actors in making sure that when it comes to the provision of skills and training, supply meets demand.
As a case in point and clearly demonstrated during the crisis, the platform economy reveals a gap between technological evolution and social conditions which must be closed. We need to address the working conditions and social protection in this part of the economy and actively address new forms of precarious work. During the Covid-19 crisis, some platforms have introduced policies which give some protection to their workers. This should not be limited to crisis situations and more widely adopted. Before that, California, the birthplace of platform work, was showing the way by adopting a dedicated law to protect such workers. The EU Directive on transparent and predictable working conditions and the Council Recommendation on access to social protection for workers and the self-employed were also first steps in the right direction. We have to make sure that these rights are strengthened and developed further. Platform economy workers should have the same social rights as other employees, including a right to collective bargaining.
„Workers must not only be equipped to take the new jobs created in a new, greener economy or to move from one job to another. We must support them as they embrace changes in the jobs they have now as well. “
2. Minimum standards for national minimum wage setting and schemes of minimum income protection at EU level
Workers in Europe should have a fair minimum wage that enables them to have a decent standard of living. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen committed to a legal instrument to this effect, and I will actively work to ensure its adoption and implementation. I am therefore extremely pleased that Germany earmarked this as a priority for its Presidency. In our view, minimum wages protect workers with low wages and low bargaining power. Adequate minimum wages reduce in-work poverty and wage inequality at the lower end of the wage distribution. Since more women than men earn wages at or around the minimum wage, improvements in the adequacy of the minimum wage also support gender equality. Some Member States already have high standards when it comes to wage setting through strong social dialogue and collective bargaining, for example. What we would like to see is upward wage convergence for the benefit of everyone. Promoting high wage standards could lead to the kind of upward economic and social convergence – the race to the top – that will help to boost the EU’s social market economy.
„What we would like to see is upward wage convergence for the benefit of everyone. “
Our initiative is based on this approach and any Commission proposal will be faithful to this objective. The collective bargaining systems in countries where they work well will remain protected, for example. The EU will not oblige any country to introduce a statutory minimum wage. Rather, the framework will also strengthen the collective bargaining system in the Member States in which it is weak – with positive effects for countries where it is a key part of the economic and social structure as well.
Much still needs to be done to ensure adequate income support, inclusive labour markets and access to quality services to support those who need them most. This will require us to apply all the instruments we have at our disposal – from legal instruments to policy coordination and funding. The EU needs an anti-poverty strategy, even more now in the context of the crisis, which, despite strong actions has substantial negative impacts on the livelihoods of many Europeans/ has left many Europeans worse off. The European Pillar of Social Rights states that “everyone lacking sufficient resources has the right to adequate minimum income benefits ensuring a life in dignity at all stages of life, and effective access to enabling goods and services”. The Commission sees Germany’s focus on this issue, which is now more relevant than ever, as an opportunity to reflect on the most appropriate way to implement this principle, within the limits of EU competencies and in line with the principle of subsidiarity.
3. Human rights and decent work in global supply chains
The crisis has shed public light on the truly global nature of our supply chains, but has also called them into question by showing their vulnerability and Europe’s dependence when it comes to the most essential goods such as vital medicine. But beyond these considerations, the Commission fully supports the German EU Council Presidency in its engagement for decent labour in global supply chains, which complements our plan to reinforce the EU’s unique brand of responsible global leadership by promoting international labour standards as part of a rules-based global order. Due to its solid involvement in global trade, the EU has a strong interest in supporting a global level playing field. The fact that some trade partners do not implement their labour rights commitments appropriately is a cause for concern. We must work together with our international partners to promote decent work for all and foster new multilateral governance mechanisms.
The EU closely cooperates with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and is active in all important debates and initiatives within ILO tripartite meetings. We are strong advocates for the Sustainable Development Goals under Target 8.7, which aims at ending child labour in all its forms by 2025 and forced labour by 2030 – a battle that is far from being won. After all, there were 152 million child labour victims and 25 million people trapped in forced labour worldwide in 2016. The Commission will ensure that every new concluded agreement will contain a dedicated sustainable-development chapter and the highest standards of climate, environmental and labour protection with a zero-tolerance policy on child labour. International labour standards should be at the core of our trade agreements, multilateral and bilateral work, and measures promoting corporate responsibility in supply chains. Millions of workers around the globe put their hope in the EU’s responsible leadership. We must ensure that ‘decent work for all’ also becomes a reality for them. I will work with the Commissioner for Trade to create an adequate framework.
I am very much looking forward to working with the German Council Presidency on all of these issues. The Commission has kicked off work on an action plan for implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights. We invite all partners to join the debate and/or pledge concrete commitments as a Member State, region, city or organisation until 30 November 20202 The German Presidency will be instrumental in helping to build momentum for the action plan in the second half of 2020. The next six months will open a clear window of opportunity to drive our common agenda forward.