Judy McKnight: British unions should keep supporting Europe’s Social Pillar, despite Brexit

Almost 30 years have passed since European Commission president Jacques Delors addressed TUC congress in 1988.

He called on UK trade unions to embrace the European project in exchange for stronger workers’ protections.

Fast forward 20 years and the European Commission’s social streak had run out of steam. That’s why, when the financial crisis hit, Europe responded with austerity, not investment or social protection.

Gone were the days when the EU promoted new rights for part-time workers and new mums, or defended health and safety at work.

But at long last, in October 2015, a new European Commission president – Jean-Claude Juncker – declared that he would achieve a “Triple A” rating for Social Europe. A proposal was published for wide consultation during 2016, officially known as the European Pillar of Social Rights.

The proposal sets out principles and rights aimed at achieving better employment and welfare for Europe’s citizens.

Not all the principles will result in new rights and protections of the type known during the Delors years, but at least there will be a debate about what needs to be done to regulate the new world of work.

Social Summit
On 17 November in Gothenburg, European leaders will gather for a Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth, co-hosted by the Swedish Government and the European Commission.

During this summit governments will commit to implement the various strands in the proposal.

In the run-up to the Summit, the ETUC is organising campaigning activities to encourage the member states to support the Social Pillar.

This is in the interests of workers in the UK, as much as the in the rest of the EU. Indeed, there are some proposals within the package that might benefit workers in the UK as we approach Brexit.

One such proposal is to revise the Written Statement Directive, which currently applies only to employees. It’s suggests that the directive should also cover workers and add an obligation to state a minimum number of hours – which would go a long way to tackle zero-hours contracts.

There are also proposals to improve conditions for apprentices, consult on whether to extend social security coverage to all forms of employment, and improve work life balance provisions by introducing some paid parental leave as well as paid carers leave.

While these are clearly steps in the right direction, they fall short of a clear action plan to implement the Social Pillar, as the ETUC proposed.

We need to push the Commission to turn these broad principles into concrete actions since time is running out – for us in terms of Brexit, and for Europe more generally, since the elections for the European Parliament in June 2019 restrict the time frame for new legislative action.

We want to make these rights real in every workplace and for every worker, regardless of their job, employment contract or migration status.

So, the first step must be to get the Social Pillar agreed by member states. This can’t be taken for granted. Hungary and Poland, for example, aren’t yet committed to supporting its adoption in Gothenburg.

Thus far, the UK government has kept very quiet, which is probably a good thing – it means it will not oppose these commitments, even in the face of Brexit.

The European Economic and Social Committee has warned that citizens will increasingly call into question the benefits of an EU that does not promote the interests and well being of all citizens by ensuring concrete action to secure an improved Social Europe. The lessons from the UK referendum result speak for themselves.

For the UK, we know that while we’re in the Single Market, we must comply with EU rules, which will include any improvements in workers rights that arise from the Social Pillar.

For the duration of the Brexit transition period at least, workers’ rights have to be kept on a par with those of the rest of the EU.

If we leave the Single Market at the end of the transition period, this will all be to play for. Though clearly it will always be in the interest of workers in the UK, for workers’ rights in the EU to be as strong as possible.

So, whatever the future holds, UK trade unions, should play a full role in the ongoing ETUC campaign to secure the strongest possible Social Pillar.

Judy McKnight is a TUC member on the European Economic and Social Committee and a former General Secretary of Napo.

This article first appeared on the TUC website. Copyright © 2017 Trades Union Congress.