By Catherine Stupp and Cécile Barbière
(EurActiv) — MEPs want the European Commission to require member states to introduce national minimum wages, a move that would unnerve politicians across Europe, business lobby groups and even some trade unions.
Maria João Rodrigues, the Socialist MEP and former Portuguese employment minister who took the lead on the Parliament report, said she was surprised that most MEPs backed a controversial section in her resolution that calls for an EU law demanding a minimum wage in every member country.
Twenty-two EU countries already have minimum wage laws. Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Cyprus, Austria and Finland do not.
The Parliament report is not binding but its approval today (19 January) comes two months before the Commission will propose new social welfare rules, including measures on working conditions and wages. It was approved with 396 votes in favour, 180 opposed and 68 abstentions.
EU Social Affairs Commissioner Marianne Thyssen has repeatedly insisted that she won’t step on national governments’ toes by proposing an EU-wide minimum wage. Laws on wages are generally left to EU member countries, not the Commission.
But Thyssen has previously encouraged more countries to introduce a national minimum wage. Her proposal this March could coax national politicians further into introducing their own minimum wage laws, EurActiv.com understands.
“This is not necessarily preventing us from setting benchmarks. If we want to go to convergence between member states, it can be good to look all together at what is a minimum wage,” Thyssen told MEPs today at a plenary session in Strasbourg.
Rodrigues said national governments should be required to introduce minimum wage laws—but that those could be set at levels that differ between EU countries.
“We need to have a European frame saying that all member states should have a minimum wage and then the concrete level of minimum wage should be set in each member state,” she told EurActiv after today’s vote.
MEPs from the centre-right EPP group axed one measure in Rodrigues’ report that called for the national minimum wage to be at least 60% of the median income in each country. They also scrapped part of the report that asked the Commission to crunch the numbers and define a living wage in every EU country.
“This shows that we have conservative forces in Europe which want to keep Europe as a continent where citizens should survive on very low wages,” Rodrigues said about those defeats.
The EPP is the largest political group in the European Parliament. Relations between the S&D group and the EPP have chilled over the last few days since Antonio Tajani, an MEP and former EU Commissioner from the centre-right party, was elected president of the Parliament on Tuesday (17 January).
MEPs first floated the idea of a minimum wage pegged at 60% of the median income in a resolution on social dumping last year. But the Commission did not include the measure in its proposal on the posting of workers directive last March.
Some countries that already have a minimum wage law might support new EU-wide rules. Left-wing candidates for the French presidency have voiced their support for minimum wage rules around the EU in the lead-up to the election there this spring.
Vincent Peillon, an MEP and former education minister running in the Socialist Party primary, has recommended the EU adopt a law on decent working conditions.
Manuel Valls, the former French prime minister who is also running for the presidency, is calling for all EU countries to adopt a minimum wage equal to 60% of their median income.
But the Parliament’s call for mandatory minimum wage rules will ruffle feathers in those countries that have held out on introducing laws. Trade unions are also cautious about the demand to make the minimum wage mandatory.
“You need a minimum wage where trade unions and employers want it. We wouldn’t agree with the idea of simply imposing a minimum wage where trade unions don’t want it,” said Julian Scola, a spokesman for the European Trade Union Confederation.
Unions negotiate wages through collective bargaining in some countries where there is no minimum wage.
Industry lobby group BusinessEurope declined to comment on the MEPs’ demand for minimum wage rules. Markus J. Beyrer, the association’s director general, said in a statement that there needs to be better reform of national labour markets.
“Tightening of labour and social security laws would have the opposite effect,” Beyrer said of the Parliament report.
Rodrigues’ report also received a lot of attention because it struck at the heart of how technology and the mobile app economy have upended working conditions. The app economy has been at the centre of bitter fights in several member states, involving court cases and at times heated protests over Uber drivers, Airbnb hosts and Deliveroo couriers who peddle around fast food deliveries at the touch of a button.
MEPs called for the Commission’s upcoming proposal to guarantee “decent working conditions in all forms of employment” and make sure anyone who is employed or self-employed through an online platform has “analogous rights as in the rest of the economy and be protected through participation in social security and health insurance schemes”.
Scola called that measure in the report “a very significant breakthrough” because it could pressure the Commission to include rules affecting online app workers in its proposal.
Thyssen told MEPs today that there’s a “need to address new forms of employment.”
“I think everyone should have a written contract,” she said.