Dialogue between workers’ and employers’ representatives and between governments has been crucial in helping to shape Europe’s response to the crisis.
The involvement of workers and employers (the social partners) in negotiation and consultation has helped companies and workers adapt to change and their contribution has, in particular, helped to minimise job losses in Europe according to a new report published today by the European Commission.
Strong social dialogue led to responses such as the introduction or extension of short-time working schemes in a number of EU countries and sectors. The social partners are also playing an important role in the successful implementation of the EU’s ‘Europe 2020’ strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
Speaking about the new report, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion László Andor said, “We have to emerge from the crisis with more and not less social dialogue – this will also help bolster the competitiveness of Europe’s economy”.
He added, “The Member States where social partnership is strongest are those that are successfully overcoming the crisis”.
The Commissioner also stressed the uneven level of social dialogue across the EU saying: “Social dialogue is still very weak in many of the countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, yet building solid partnerships between workers’ and employers’ representatives is precisely what will help these Member States on the road to recovery”.
Analyzing the first phase of the crisis, the Industrial Relations in Europe 2010 report examines in detail the crisis-response agreements reached in Member States and in different sectors. In more than half of EU countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Italy, Austria, Denmark and Finland), the national employers’ and trade union federations signed specific agreements, either among themselves or with the government, or were involved in designing specific public policy measures, mainly short-time working schemes. In Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the crisis led for the first time to such social partner agreements at national cross-industry level. Nonetheless, the degree of consensus varies widely between countries and economic sectors, with industrial conflicts still emerging in a number of Member States.
Wage flexibility has been especially important in the debate during the economic crisis. In a number of Member States like Ireland, Greece and Spain that are taking on austerity measures, discussions relating to minimum wage and low pay are difficult and sensitive. The report also finds that the further decentralisation of wage-setting arrangements towards company-level bargaining is a continuing trend, with workers reaching agreements directly with their employers about pay.
Other issues outlined in the report include the social partners’ increased attention to the transition to a low-carbon economy. The report highlights several examples of trade union and employers’ organisations contributing concrete proposals for investment in green technologies and skills to the recovery plans of several Member States, such as in Spain and Belgium, and including a green dimension in their dialogue, particularly at company level. The report stresses how, in the long run, social dialogue is crucial for a well-managed and socially just transition to a low-carbon economy.
Overall, the report confirms that collective bargaining is still very much present in Europe, with two thirds of all workers covered by a collective agreement. There has been a slow decline in trade union membership– down from 37% of workers in 2000 to less than 31% in 2008 – but membership of employers’ organisations, which largely determines collective bargaining coverage, appears to be stable. At the same time, there are significant differences between Member States.
Throughout the crisis social partners have forged a notable degree of coordination and solidarity across Europe, resisting the temptation to call for protectionist national responses. The problem-solving potential of social dialogue has to be fully utilised in these times of budgetary consolidation. The report also illustrates how the agreements reached in the past two years have made a real difference to workers in the EU. Agreements on important issues such as parental leave, health and safety at work or inclusive labour markets, European social partners have shown that they are best placed to find solutions in the world of work to the benefit of workers and employers across Europe.