Unions celebrate Europe's role in improving employees' rights

Jun 09 2006 by Nic Paton Print This Article

For most businesses, Europe is synonymous with red tape, intervention and obstruction. But according to Britain's trade unions, most of the advances in workplace rights that employees now take for granted would not have become law if it were not for the European Union.

The best defence the UK economy has against the negative human costs of globalisation comes from being part of a strengthened social Europe, not a single market at the mercy of the markets, deregulation and increased liberalisation.

That's the thrust of a new pamphlet published by the TUC and written by MEP Stephen Hughes and ex-TUC assistant general secretary David (now Lord) Lea.

The pamphlet, entitled "Europe and your rights at work", argues that many of the protections workers have come to accept at work, such as the right to a minimum of twenty days paid annual leave and the enshrining of the concept of equal pay in UK law, began life as directives in Europe.

Twelve key rights emanating from Europe that have improved the quality of all UK workers' contracts of employments, said the TUC.

These included sex discrimination law, the Transfer of Undertaking principle Ė which protects the terms of conditions of employees whose jobs are contracted out Ė equal treatment for part time workers and limits on working time.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "UK politicians like to claim the good things from Europe as their own, and blame it for anything unpopular.

"Yet some of the most popular and worthwhile changes in the workplace have come direct from Europe.

"This is not just because the social European model balances the needs of employees, consumers and the environment in a way alien in unfettered U.S capitalism, but because it makes sense to introduce such changes throughout the world's biggest market," he added.

"But there is still more that could be done at European level to protect vulnerable workers such as bringing the now shelved agency workers directive back to life, and more in the UK to promote and protect social Europe," he continued.

Lord Lea added: "If we wish to avoid protectionism in relation to trade, then protection of a different kind is needed Ė a model of economic restructuring that protects the rights and living standards of those now in the front line affected by globalisation.

"That is the only way to give people confidence in playing their part in accelerating structural change. And it is why we say that the social dimension is even more vital in the next 30 years than it has been in the last 30."

The European wide opinion survey "Eurobarometer", meanwhile, is showing that Europe's citizens are more concerned about a growing sense of insecurity than anything else.

There is a struggle to balance between providing flexibility for companies with the necessary degree of security for workers working in and moving between those firms, said the TUC.

Without that balance, working people will stand against change rather than embrace it, it warned.

The pamphlet also expresses concern that businesses and some European governments are pressing Europe to slow down on the social front.

Rather than accepting that a liberalised, deregulated, more flexible agenda from Brussels is the only defence Europe has against the emerging economies of China and India, the pamphlet argued that the successful Scandinavian economies proved it is possible to have sound rights at work, safe and equal workplaces and well-run economies.