President von der Leyen must back support of social partners with action!

14 Sep 2023

Following the 13 September State of the European Union 2023 (SOTEU 2023) speech by European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF), calls on President von der Leyen, and the European Commission at large, to back statements of support for social partners and trade unions with bold and substantive actions, policy and legislation, particularly as the European Union faces the prospect of a divided European Parliament following next year’s European elections (6-9 June 2024).

Perhaps it was in full electoral mode that President von der Leyen made these broad statements of support for trade unions and our employer counterparts. However, President von der Leyen is correct in the analysis that trade unions possess the unique ability to ensure correct and just policy responses to the challenges of worker shortages and the digital transition, as well as those other challenges facing Europe outlined in her speech – the green transition, and macroeconomic security of the continent considering the globalised economy.

Worker shortages are pervasive in transport and mainly caused by poor job quality. Transport work in Europe is increasingly defined by low wages, long hours and poor and deteriorating working conditions. Despite this, the 2023 European Year of Skills supported the employers’ perspective that skills shortages and mismatch cause worker shortages. While lifelong training and education is a core goal for all trade unions, especially considering the twin digital and green transitions, skills shortages or mismatch cannot be considered as the root cause of the labour shortages (see the ELA’s 2021 Report on Labour Shortages and Surpluses).

Migration or labour mobility is not a permanent solution to the fundamental causes of the worker shortages. It is merely a bandage that directly supports the employer perspective and maintains substandard working terms and conditions. A job not good enough for a European citizen cannot be considered good for a third-country national.

President  von der Leyen’s calls for increased competitiveness for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the face of worker shortages cannot be taken as an excuse by the European Commission for further deregulation regarding social standards and obligations (as often calls for competitiveness are), particularly as transport SMEs are often the main purveyors of substandard working terms and conditions. The European Commission should instead focus its efforts on social accountability of transport operators operating in the EU as third-country operators and transport subsidiaries are undercutting social terms and conditions, such as those aviation companies of the Arabian gulf states operating in Europe.

If President von der Leyen believes that “the future of Europe will be built with and by our social partners”, the European Commission must accordingly support and promote truly equal and substantive social dialogue and negotiation between the social partners, as well as creating the conditions that foster collective bargaining agreements, especially at sectoral level. The correct implementation of the directive on adequate minimum wages (2022/2041) is key to achieve this. The proposed Social Partner Summit, planned during the Belgian Presidency of the European Council (January – June 2024), cannot and should not be a PR exercise in view of the European elections but be an opportunity to promote these efforts.