Working conditions & employment

Working conditions & employment
Introduction & opportunities: 

In addition to affecting individual well-being, employment is a major contributor to national and European productivity and competitiveness, with implications for the sustainability of social welfare systems. Workplaces directly influence the physical, mental, economic and social well-being of workers and consecutively the health of their families, communities and society. The Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion includes objectives to improve access to employment and seeks to connect this to strategies to develop jobs and workers’ skills.

The Working Time Directive and related health and safety at work policies form the cornerstone for EU policy on working conditions. Its power as a Directive ensures that it not only has legal force but also stirs controversy. Hence, it is, depending on perspective, either the most important and successful social policy produced by the EU or the worst.

As recently noted by the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work, previous health and safety strategies at the EU level have focused predominantly on physical, chemical and other risks, with too little focus on psychosocial stressors. Due to opposition from national governments, and arguments about the ‘red tape’ (bureaucratic burdens) imposed on businesses and employers, the EU Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Strategic Framework 2014-2020 was delayed and made less binding than had been hoped by stakeholders such as trade unions. Nevertheless, it places greater emphasis on psychosocial and mental health risks in the workplace than the previous strategic framework.

Many other policy areas reference the role of employment, access to employment and the working environment as a significant factor in determining health. Discrimination, which hinders access to labour markets, is another opportunity. Gender-based discrimination, for example, results in under-utilisation of talent and imposes a heavy toll on the economy.

The Agenda for new skills and jobs initiative as part of the Europe 2020 Strategy, is the Commission’s contribution to achieving the EU employment rate target for women and men of 75 per cent for the 20-64 years age group by 2020. The Strategy also highlights the EU’s targets to reduce the early school leaving rate to under ten per cent and increase the number of young people in higher education or equivalent vocational education to at least 40 per cent. This agenda is complemented by other EU initiatives including the Europe 2020’s flagship initiatives Youth on the Move and the Strategy for equality between women and men 2010-2015.

Potential avenues of influence: 

A broad range of actors are involved in developing and delivering employment policies and gender equity as well as reconciliation policies and health and safety at work. Trade unions have an important role to play in this respect. One would expect the greatest opportunity to be to influence access to work and working conditions. However, the focus of many stakeholders (particularly national governments, certain political groups and employers) is on the creation of jobs and growth, rather than equitable access to the employment market and healthy working conditions. The stalemate on negotiating the Working Time Directive demonstrates the challenges of making progress.