Under the auspices of the Luxembourg Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the Ministry of Labour, Employment and the Social and Solidarity Economy organised, in partnership with the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), a conference on working conditions which took place at the Cercle Cité in Luxembourg on 24 November 2015.
Eurofound presented the first results from the sixth survey on working conditions in the European Union. The survey deals with subjects relating to the quality of work and provides information on varied themes, such as exposure to physical and psychosocial risks, the duration and organisation of working time, work organisation and work-life balance. The presentation of these first results was followed by a discussion on the future challenges regarding working conditions and public policies which will help to create the best working conditions and quality jobs.
During the opening speech, Nicolas Schmit, Minister for Labour and Employment, began by praising the work of Eurofound, an agency which has become "indispensable" in the 40 years of service for better working conditions in Europe. "Your analysis forms part of the European social model, which must be developed, enhanced, adapted", commented the Minister, who said that the work of Eurofound reminds us that "economic performance is not sustainable if human and social aspects are not taken into account." According to him, the results of the agency's work should further inspire political decision-makers and guide entrepreneurs and social partners.
For Nicolas Schmit, "human capital is our most precious asset, notably in this period of profound change". The Luxembourg Presidency has put people first, he said, explaining that a stronger social dimension means among other things better working conditions, while also investing in people, fighting unemployment, particularly among young people, and fighting gender discrimination.
The Minister said "he was convinced that undeclared work created social exclusion, a precarious situation and a much riskier working environment", echoing the agreement recently reached with the European Parliament on putting into place a platform on undeclared work.
Nicolas Schmit also mentioned that the EPSCO Council had on 5 October adopted Conclusions on a new Agenda for health and safety at work to foster better working conditions. The Minister outlined several of the objectives pursued by the Ministers of Labour in these conclusions.
Firstly, there must be "guarantees that the EU will continue to play a key role in encouraging higher levels in terms of working conditions", insisted the Minister. In his view, this is all the more important given that the need for binding standards is sometimes called into question for the purpose of reducing regulations considered too costly for business.
Secondly, Nicolas Schmit stressed, "we must consider the transformations from the digital revolution in the world of work and for working conditions". "This will be a major challenge in the years to come", said the Minister who called for the development of new responses to ensure that technological and digital change and new forms of employment do not put health and safety into question, nor produce more precarious working conditions. Nicolas Schmit cited the conclusions of the Council in which Ministers highlighted "the need to understand and identify the potential challenges and risks related to health and safety at work regarding new forms of employment and work organisation, new professions, more diversified workplaces and atypical working hours, in areas such as subcontracting, digital work, crowd-work, work on demand, sharing economy, supply chains, dependent self-employed workers". "These are the new realities of the world of work", commented the Minister. According to him, these are "insufficiently taken into account when we strive for decent working conditions and a safe working environment". Nicolas Schmit referred to a conference on the impact of the digital revolution on employment and the world of work which took place in Luxembourg on 10 and 11 November under the auspices of the Presidency. He also cited the report entitled 'Digital Transformation and Life at Work', drawn up by Bruno Mettling at the request of the French government. Social partners have recognised these changes, noted the Minister, while calling for "integration of these transformations in our thoughts".
Nicolas Schmit went on to point to the need "to increase the level of protection against carcinogenic and hazardous agents at work", seen as a priority for Labour Ministers. The Dutch Presidency announced its intention to work on the subject, he said, stressing that the Commission was invited to improve the legislation". The Eurofound survey shows that the increasing number of people exposed to chemical or infectious materials pose a "real danger", said the Minister.
For Nicolas Schmit, it is not "enough to improve our tools, there must also be adequate resources for the efficient implementation of legislation on health and safety at work and the preventive measures to support enterprises in the prevention and management of risks at the workplace". The Minister considered the role of labour inspectors as being important to improve the implementation of legislation.
The Minister called for the mobilisation of governments and to involve social partners, noting that it is not sufficient just to talk of strengthening social dialogue, but that there must also be concrete improvement through negotiations leading to agreements that improve the world of work. "These agreements are not necessarily incompatible with better legislation", said the Minister.
Nicolas Schmit also raised the complex question of working time, the challenge is to combine flexibility and to achieve a work-life balance. "The right balance must be found between changes in our businesses and the aspirations of people in terms of their private lives", indicated the Minister. "Working time has no limits any more", he said, because "for many, eight-hour days no longer exist since they always have to be at disposal". "It's not sustainable on an individual basis", said the Minister, "neither is it for businesses, nor society". From his point-of-view, finding the limits between private and work life is thus a genuine challenge.
In his opinion, the Eurofound survey should guide Ministers and other stakeholders in defining and implementing new policies. "As a whole, the situation has not deteriorated in Europe", he said, but this is not to say that the situation is perfect. The crisis is not over, said Nicolas Schmit, stating levels of unemployment which remain high, specifically among older workers and young people, a lower employment rate than before the crisis, more precarious working conditions, or even the emergence of poor workers in many countries.