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Labour laws: How the European Union protects its workers' rights

According to the 22 Global Rights Index 2022, workers in the European Union are amongst those with the best labour conditions.

Here is an overview of the measures taken by the Union and its members, and how they help guarantee fair working conditions.

Maximum Weekly Working Time

The EU has implemented uniform minimum standards of working hours across its member states. This EU legislation enforced a cap on the maximum weekly working time at 48 hours, a guaranteed minimum of four weeks of paid annual leave per year, and the establishment of rest periods and regulations for night work or shift work. These measures aim to safeguard employee well-being and promote fairness in the workplace throughout the European Union.

Considering the Newest Forms of Work and protecting the most vulnerable workers

Over the last few years, the European labour market has been significantly transformed by factors such as digitization, technological advancements, and the increase in flexible forms of employment. These changes have led to the emergence of new types of jobs, including temporary and non-standard positions.

To ensure the protection of all employees in the EU and to strengthen the rights of workers in atypical employment contracts who may be more vulnerable, the European Parliament introduced new rules in 2019. These rules establish minimum rights concerning working conditions. The legislation includes various protective measures such as limiting the duration of probationary periods to a maximum of six months, providing access to free training opportunities, and prohibiting restrictive contracts that may unfairly impact workers.

Furthermore, members of the European Parliament are currently working on a directive aimed at improving the working conditions of employees working in digital platforms like Uber and Deliveroo. The proposed rules seek to accurately determine the employment status of platform workers and ensure that their labor rights are protected.

Minimum standards for remote working

While remote work has increased efficiency and flexibility for both employers and employees, it has also blurred the boundaries between work and personal life. To ensure that the increased use of digital tools does not compromise the rights of employees, the Parliament is calling for an EU-wide law that allows them to be unreachable outside working hours without facing consequences. Additionally, the Members of Parliament are demanding minimum standards for remote work.

Minimum Wage

In 2017, the EU reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring a fair income for all workers. In September 2022, the Members of the European Parliament passed the first EU legislation on adequate minimum wages.

To assess the adequacy of wages, countries can use different criteria. For example, they can compare wages with a national basket of goods or widely used reference values such as 60 percent of the gross median wage or 50 percent of the gross average wage. The provisions also aim to promote collective bargaining and enforce the rights of workers.

Health and Safety at the Workplace

The EU adopts legislation in the field of health and safety at the workplace to complement and support the measures taken by member states.

The Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work establishes general principles for minimum requirements in the field of safety and health at work. It applies to almost all sectors of public and private economic activity and sets obligations for employers and employees.

In addition, there are specific provisions for the exposure to hazardous substances, certain categories of workers (such as pregnant workers, young workers), specific activities (such as manual handling of loads), and workplaces (e.g., fishing vessels, etc.).

For example, the Directive on the protection of workers from risks related to carcinogens and mutagens at the workplace is regularly updated to establish exposure limits. In 2022, the Members of the European Parliament succeeded in including reprotoxic substances in the latest update of the directive. Member states are free to establish even stricter standards when implementing the directives into national law.

With an aging workforce and an increase in retirement age, health risks are also on the rise. In 2018, the European Parliament adopted a report proposing measures to facilitate the return to work for people after a long-term sick leave and to better integrate chronically ill individuals and people with disabilities into the workforce.

Work-Life Balance and Promotion of Gender Equality

The European Parliament has always been committed to promoting gender equality and works towards it in all its activities.

To ensure equal opportunities and promote a better sharing of caregiving responsibilities, the Parliament adopted a series of new provisions in 2019 to enable parents and employees caring for family members with serious health issues to better reconcile work and private life.

The directive establishes a minimum of ten days of paternity leave, a minimum of four months of parental leave per parent (two of which are non-transferable), five days of carers' leave per year, and more flexible working conditions.

Maternity rights are defined in the directive on pregnant workers. The minimum duration for maternity leave has been set at 14 weeks, with mandatory leave of two weeks before and/or after childbirth.

Moreover, the Parliament is committed to taking more measures to combat the gender pay and pension gap, and it calls for EU regulations against bullying and sexual harassment.

New provisions agreed upon by the Parliament and the Council in December 2022 require companies to disclose salary information. This is intended to make it easier for employees to compare salaries and uncover gender-based pay disparities.

Labor Mobility in the EU

EU legislation on the coordination of national social security systems ensures that citizens can fully exercise their right to study, work, or settle in another EU country while receiving the social and healthcare benefits they are entitled to. The legislation covers sickness, maternity and paternity leave, family benefits, unemployment benefits, and similar provisions, which are currently being revised.

The establishment of a new EU agency, the European Labour Authority, was decided in 2019. The agency is intended to support member states and the European Commission in the application and enforcement of EU law in the field of labor mobility and the coordination of social security systems.

Employees can be temporarily posted by their companies to work in another member state to perform specific tasks. In 2018, the EU rules on the posting of workers were revised to ensure the principle of "equal pay for equal work at the same place."

To combat unemployment and improve the matching of labor supply and demand in Europe, a new law was adopted in 2016. The European Job Mobility Portal, EURES, was equipped with an EU-wide database of job seekers and job vacancies.

Social Dialogue

The social partners, namely trade unions and employers' associations, are involved in shaping European social and employment policies through consultations and opinions in what is known as the "Social Dialogue," and they can also negotiate framework agreements.

The EU aims to involve employees in the decision-making processes of companies and has established a general framework for employees' rights to information and consultation. EU regulations stipulate that employers must negotiate with employee representatives in the event of mass dismissals.

At the transnational level, employees are represented by the European Works Council. Through this body, they are informed and consulted by the company management on all significant decisions at the European level that could affect employment or working conditions. Members of the European Parliament call for an update of the regulations to strengthen the role of European Works Councils.

Source: European Parliament

This article is from the 2/2023 issue of the magazine "Life Abroad".

The magazine is published four times a year free of charge with many informative articles on foreign topics.

It is published by the BDAE, the expert for protection abroad.