Challenges ahead and priorities
On 1 February 2016, the Workers' Group organised an extraordinary meeting to discuss its political priorities and take stock of the ongoing legislative and policy work in the European institutions.
In her opening statement, Gabriele Bischoff, President of the Workers’ Group, gave an overview of the challenges ahead: attacks on collective bargaining and free movement, the ongoing austerity and its social consequences, a possible Brexit, the inability of EU leaders to deal with the refugee crisis…. She warned that Mr. Cameron's negotiation package constituted a threat to workers’ rights and called for common actions of trade unions and civil society in order to maintain acquired rights, defend free movement in a Schengen area without borders and strengthen the EMU.
The first part of the morning session was devoted to the role of the EU in promoting the sustainable development goals included in the 2030 United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development which was adopted in September 2015. Caroline Petit, Deputy Director of the UN Regional Information Centre, summarized recent developments in the area and listed the events planned in 2016 in order to promote these goals, stressing that it was essential for civil society to play an active role in communicating them. Isabel Caño, Member of the Workers' Group and Vice-President of the EESC's Sustainable Development Observatory (SDO), insisted on the need for a close cooperation between ETUC (European Trade Union Confederation) and the Workers’ Group in order to ensure progress on the trade unions' priorities in relation to those goals which include the following: safeguarding democratic rights like the right to strike, providing good training and education that helps secure quality jobs and ensuring a fair transition towards a zero carbon society by establishing a safety net for workers. Georges Dassis, President of the EESC, looked ahead to the next COP conference in Morocco, where the Committee must attempt to steer the outcome in the right direction and ensure that the cost for providing a viable future for the next generations is fairly distributed.
The second part of the morning session centered on the common priorities of the Workers’ Group and the trade union movement with Luca Visentini, ETUC General Secretary, insisting on Schengen as a first priority, as the Schengen acquis is currently under threat due to the refugee crisis and the negotiations with the UK. He claimed that Europe is able to deal with the current number of refugees but that responsibilities must be shared and solidarity must prevail through a proportional distribution of refugees among all Member States and their fast inclusion in the labour market.
Another priority should be the fight against a deterioration of social rights and attempts to destroy the European social model in the context of the "Brexit" negotiations. The ETUC is launching a series of initiatives (such as promoting its positions vis-à-vis governments who could be allies in this fight, for example France) and would welcome Group II actions in the same direction. Finally, the workers’ movement would have to prevent further attempts to abolish established rights like the right to strike, which is currently under attack in several countries like Spain, Italy, Poland, Finland, Hungary and the UK.
The afternoon session was devoted to an information session on the ongoing work in sections and other EESC bodies particularly in the framework of the Commission’s REFIT-program destined to cut red tape in European legislation. Denis Meynent, Member of the Workers' Group and rapporteur on REFIT, explained that efforts to simplify and improve EU legislation should not lead to deregulation which might have a negative impact on workers. He called for common action of trade unions and NGOs in favour of a rebalancing of the REFIT approach to safeguard citizens’ protection. Katarzyna Hanula-Bobbitt (Finance Watch) described the working method of the REFIT-platform and explained that while trade unions and civil society organisations do not have a majority, they can make their issues known and therefore still take advantage of it.
Regarding employment relationships, Kathleen Walker Shaw, member of the Workers' Group, presented the opinion on "The changing nature of employment relationships and its impact on maintaining a living wage" (for which she is rapporteur). She described the issues linked to new forms of employment such as precarious work, zero hour contracts, unclear contractual relationships and responsibility sharing between employers and employees (quoting the example of the UBER taxi company). Many of the questions raised were of direct interest to workers and their representatives, and Gabriele Bischoff concluded that the Workers' Group will follow further developments closely.
Pierre-Jean Coulon, Member of the Workers' Group and President of the TEN section (Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and Information Society), gave an overview of the current challenges in the energy sector. For him, striking a balance between social, economic and environmental concerns and a fair share of burdens are key issues as regards the transition towards a low carbon economy. He called for more solidarity when it comes to negotiations with third countries for the purchase of energy packages, the development of networks and the use of energy. He pointed out that all these issues could be discussed with Commissioner Šefčovič during the EESC plenary in April.