By Dr Martha Theodorou
One of your tasks, as Commissioner, is to strengthen the EU’s social dimension. After the economic and social crisis, by which means does Europe situate the social dimension at the centre of its main policies, in order to make progress towards the economic and social cohesion?
Europe is a social market economy. So the economic and social elements will always go hand in hand. After the pandemic hit, and as a society we were facing the socio-economic consequences of the crisis, it became ever more apparent that for the recovery to be sustainable and inclusive, we need to keep “social” at the heart.
In practical terms, this means that every policy that the Commission develops and proposes considers elements such as inclusion, fairness, equality and social rights. For example, when it comes to the European Green Deal and our climate neutrality objectives, the EU is paying particular attention to those who might feel the impact of those changes, and helping to mitigate those impacts through policy measures and funding.
You have presented the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan, which turns the 20 Principles of the Pillar into Actions. How does the Plan help the European social market economy to thrive?
The European Pillar of Social Rights sets out 20 key principles and rights essential for fair and well-functioning labour markets and social protection systems. The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan turns the Principles into concrete actions to benefit citizens. It also proposes targets for Member States collectively to reach by 2030.
Let me give you an example. Principle 1 of the Pillar says that everyone has the right to quality and inclusive education, training and life-long learning. One of the targets that we set is to have at least 60% of adults taking part in training each year. Member States in June presented their national plans on lifelong learning, so the Action Plan has had a direct impact on making Principle 1 of the Pillar come to life.
The reason that skills and lifelong learning are so important is that we are going through huge transformations in our labour market, and only by adapting to these changes, and learning new skills, will we help our citizens to thrive, and our industries to prosper.
In the Porto Social Summit all partners committed to the 2030 social targets, as they pledged to build a more social Europe. What are the next steps in order to achieve social progress for all of the European citizens?
Yes, the Porto Summit of May 2021 was a real game-changer for social rights in Europe. It breathed new life into the Pillar of Social Rights and affirmed the commitment of all EU leaders, social partners and civil society to building a strong social Europe.
The next step is already underway! In June 2021, Member States presented their national ambitions that will contribute to meeting the three social targets we set for employment levels, training participation and poverty reduction. We will continue to support Member States in meeting those targets, and monitor their progress.
One of the nine topics of the Conference on the Future of Europe Report is “social justice and jobs”. How do you plan to follow up effectively on its relevant proposals?
The Conference of the Future of Europe report showed that social Europe is dear to citizens’ hearts. The Report addresses the future of our economy and jobs, especially after the pandemic, and it highlighted the importance to citizens of social justice and climate change.
For example, participants clearly expressed their wish to develop strong social policies, asking for an introduction of fair minimum wages. Fortunately, the EU was already working on precisely this and we reached an agreement on a Directive on adequate minimum wages in June.
The next step in the process is to identify areas where the Commission can make proposals or further develop its policies. As always, clear communication will be essential in this follow-up, so that people can see the real impact the Conference has made. To keep citizens informed and to keep up the momentum, a Conference Feedback Event will be organised in autumn 2022.
What is today the European Commission’s assessment of the impact of SURE, the €100 billion instrument designed to protect jobs and incomes affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
SURE was a crucial element of the EU's strategy to protect citizens and mitigate the negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. It provides financial support in the form of loans granted on favourable terms from the EU to Member States to finance national short-time work schemes, similar measures to preserve jobs and support incomes notably for the self-employed.
SURE has proven to be both innovative and indispensable. It is a shining example of a Europe that protects and works for people. A report that was published in September 2021 shows that making finance available to Member States through SURE helped avoid up to 1.5 million more people entering unemployment in 2020. SURE helped to stem this flow. It supported 31 million workers and 2.5 million firms.
So we believe that SURE was invaluable, particularly for small businesses which would have struggled to survive without financial support. The EU will continue to act swiftly and in solidarity in times of crisis.
As a consequence of the social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, employment grew in jobs that can be carried out from home. Does the European Commission support teleworking, and in which sectors?
The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation in all sectors as remote working has largely been extended. According to a Eurofound survey, in July 2020, over a third (34%) of respondents in the EU27 were working from home because of the pandemic, compared to only 5% who indicated that they usually worked from home in 2019.
Now that teleworking has become a widespread reality for many European workers, we are working to make sure there are high standards of occupational safety and health wherever someone is working, and that people can have the right to disconnect and maintain a decent work-life balance.
I very much welcome that European Social Partners have decided to negotiate an agreement on teleworking that will include the right to disconnect.
What is, in your opinion, the future of work? How does the European Union address the challenges of the new era, and how does it contribute to the development and delivery of a European response towards a better future of work?
New types of jobs, work patterns and sectors are emerging on an almost daily basis. Look back 20 years, and think about how much the labour market has changed in this time: certainly you wouldn’t have been ordering your ride home via an app 20 years ago.
The emergence of digital labour platforms has had a huge impact on how consumers engage services, and of course as a consequence, on the working conditions for people who work for them. Around 40% of employment in the EU does not anymore involve a traditional full-time, permanent contract between an employee and an employer.
Many people will need to use technology in their current job or will transition to new jobs where the use of technology will prevail. To support these transitions, we need to adapt our skill policies.
I am optimistic about the way the labour market will adapt, and that we as workers, consumers and employers, will adapt with it. But these changes largely driven by technology should go hand in hand with social and labour rights. Workers have a right to security even if there will be career changes. A good balance between professional and private life is a major aspiration of the younger generations.
The European Commission proposed a set of measures to improve the labour conditions of people working on digital platforms. How do the new rules ensure that those people can enjoy the labour rights they are entitled to?
Employment status is the gateway to labour rights. 9 out of 10 platforms active in the EU are estimated to classify people working through them as self-employed. Of the 28 million people who are believed to do platform work, 5.5 million may be mis-classified, meaning they are “false self-employed”. This means they could be missing out on some social protection and labour rights that workers are entitled to.
The proposal provides a list of criteria to determine whether the platform is an “employer”. If the platform meets at least two of the criteria, it is legally presumed to be an employer, making the person a “worker”. We estimate that between 1.7 million and 4.1 million people could be re-classified as workers under our proposal.
The proposed Directive also increases transparency about algorithms, so people can understand how tasks are allocated, how prices are set, how they are being evaluated.
The European Green Deal will improve the well-being and health of citizens by making Europe the first climate-neutral continent. What are the employment challenges and the opportunities of the new economic model?
We all agree that there is an urgent need to reach climate neutrality in Europe and across the world. This requires mammoth efforts from citizens, companies, entire industries in some cases. It also means that many workers will need to make the leap from jobs in traditional, fossil fuel-based industries to emerging green sectors and “green jobs” across all sectors where we are facing skills shortages.
In the construction sector, for example, we expect the European Green Deal to create 487,000 new jobs in the EU by 2030. Out of these, almost 70% will be created for skilled manual and non-manual workers, who typically have a vocational education and training background (VET).
The Pact for Skills is another way the Commission is helping companies and workers to prepare for the green and digital transitions. By creating a forum for all partners to discuss current and future skills needs and set up partnerships, the Pact is playing match-maker for Europe’s talent supply and demand. So far, over 600 organisations have pledged to provide the right skills for 6 million people.
Following the EU strategic framework on health and safety at work in 2021-2027, what key actions are needed to improve workers' health and safety in Europe?
Principle 10 of the European Pillar of Social Rights gives workers the right to a high level of protection of their health and safety at work. The strategic framework has three main objectives: anticipating and managing change in the new world of work; improving prevention of work-related diseases and accidents; and increasing preparedness for possible future health threats.
We must commit to a ‘vision zero' approach when it comes to work-related deaths in the EU. One life lost in the workplace really is one too many. And of course being healthy at work is not only about our physical state, it is also about our mental health and well-being.
We are currently working on several actions under the framework, for example updating protective limits on asbestos and lead, and updating the Display Screen Equipment Directive.
How does the European Social Fund Plus, with a budget of almost €99.3 billion for the period of 2021-2027, contribute to the EU’s employment and social policies?
The aim of the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+) is to support Member States to invest in people – in their training, in the green and digital transition, and via social protection.
A very important aspect of the fund is the support it provides young people. At least 12.5% of the fund must be used on initiatives combating youth unemployment. There have been some excellent projects co-funded by the ESF in this area. For example the fund has helped more than 11,000 young participants in Greece to enrol in a national apprentice programme. They gain valuable professional skills, upgrade their qualification and get paid work experience.
The ESF+ also provides financing for projects to combat poverty and social exclusion. For example, during my recent visit to Bulgaria I visited the Early Childhood Development Centreproject in Plovdiv, which provides a wide range of services to children in need, help them to get prepared for school, to raise their improve well-being and to build a healthy family environment.
The European Commission adopted a Proposal for a Directive on adequate minimum wages. What is the EU framework to improve the adequacy of minimum wages and to increase the access of workers to minimum wage protection?
At a time when many households across the EU are worried about making ends meet, it is essential that all Member States have in place adequate minimum wage protection. The framework that has been agreed by the European Parliament and the Council will help make sure that minimum wage earners can afford a dignified life.
The Directive sets a framework for setting and updating statutory minimum wages, it promotes and facilitates collective bargaining, and it improves monitoring and enforcement of minimum wage protection.
For those countries with a statutory minimum wage, like in Greece, the Directive sets clear criteria for minimum wage setting, gives indications of reference values that can be used to assess the adequacy of minimum wages, ensures they are updated regularly, and that social partners are involved.
In the context of the European Gender Strategy, gender equality is a precondition for building a fair and modern society. Women in the European Union still earn less than men on average. What are the objectives of the Proposal for a Directive on equal pay for equal work (pay transparency) or work of equal value between men and women?
Equal pay for equal work is one of the EU’s founding principles. Even though the gender pay gap is decreasing, progress is very slow in the European Union with the gap only decreasing by just under 2 percentage points over the last 9 years. The main objective of the Proposal for a Directive on equal pay for equal work is to close this gap. The proposal aims to arm employees with information on pay levels, provide greater clarity on pay equality which would be coupled with effective enforcement measures.
The first principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights addresses the right to quality and inclusive education, as well as training and lifelong learning. How does the new European Skills Agenda help Europeans to develop new and better skills?
The European Skills Agenda is a five-year plan to help individuals and businesses develop more and better skills and to put them to use. It gives a call to join forces in a collective action via the Pact for Skills. It aims to ensure that people have the right skills for jobs through modernised vocational education and training, and by investing in skills intelligence to understand the current and future skills needs. It supports people in their bid to upskill and reskill through initiatives like Micro-credentials and Individual Learning Accounts. And it encourages Member States to use EU funds – such as via the Recovery and Resilience Facility, as well as the European Social Fund – to invest heavily in skills.
In which ways the European Labour Authority will contribute to fair labour mobility within the European Union?
The ELA is here to support directly and indirectly the millions of Europeans who live or work in another Member State, as well as businesses operating across EU borders. It offers practical support in cross-border employment via its EURES network, helping job-seekers and employers find each other.
ELA analyses labour mobility, providing us with intelligence so we understand the latest trends and get the data we need. It tackles undeclared work which deprives workers of social protection, distorts competition between businesses, and leads to huge gaps in public finances.
It also improves access to information for mobile workers and their employers. It is not enough to have rules and regulations for social protection and labour rights - workers need to understand them and employers need to assume responsibility for them!
How do you cooperate with the EU Member States in order to strengthen social protection systems in Europe?
Our objectives are very clear: to lift people out of poverty and material deprivation, to provide access to social protection to all and to reduce inequalities. The cooperation between the EU and the Members States is very strong. The EU supports and complements the activities of Member States in the field of social security and social protection, by identifying for each country the social policy areas where progress is needed, monitoring social policy and social inclusion developments. Developing social protection systems requites tangible results and that is why we also encourage Member States to exchange existing good practices among each other.
What is the role of the social dialogue in Europe? To what extent does the social dialogue contribute to Europe's social dimension today?
Social dialogue is at the heart of a thriving social market economy, and this Commission is committed to strengthening it even further. When employer associations and worker organisations come together to negotiate and exchange ideas, it promotes consensus-building and democratic involvement.
At the end of the year the Commission will present a Communication on strengthening social dialogue which we are preparing of course in cooperation with social partners.
The European Commission presented a Communication on decent work worldwide for a global just transition and a sustainable recovery. How do you collaborate with the ILO and the UN?
Decent work is the foundation of a decent life. Many workers worldwide still see their labour and social rights threatened on a daily basis. The EU will continue to play a leading role in promoting decent work that puts people at the centre, making sure their rights and their dignity are respected.
The EU advocates for the topic of decent work to be discussed and advanced in UN fora and encourages partner countries to actively promote and support the global implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. We also actively contribute to the International Labour Organization processes of setting labour standards, supervising their application, and promoting their implementation.
How does the European Social Charter, seen as the Social Constitution of Europe, affect EU employment policies and initiatives? Does it serve as a point of reference in European Union law?
The European Social Charter was adopted in 1961, becoming one of the most widely accepted human rights set of standards thanks to its strong vocation for social rights. It was revised in 1996 enriching the broad range of guarantees related to employment, housing, health, education, social protection and welfare.
It has been guiding EU lawmakers in their everyday work ever since. Yet, societies evolve and so do our needs in the legal sphere. The most relevant point of reference for the European Union law are the people and the social realities we are facing.