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The employers' voice in the European dialogue

The employers' voice in the European dialogue

| Text: Berit Kvam; Photo:BSLN

Will the social partners reach agreement on the working time directive like they managed to come to an agreement on work-related stress? Initial talks have begun but nobody knows how it will end. The social dialogue is nevertheless playing a part in Europe's policy development.

Jørgen Rønnest has represented employers in discussions between the social partners in Europe for nearly two decades. Both a member and the leader for the Social Affairs Committee i Business Europe, he has contributed to the integration of the social dialogue into EU's policy development. The Lisbon treaty acknowledges both the role of the partners and their importance to the development of labour marked policies, and the treaty established the Tripartite Social Summit. 

"Labour market politics have seen a dramatic development over the past 20 years," says Jørgen Rønnest.

He has witnessed the shifting of goals and ideals from the early 1990s with Jacques Delors heading 12 member states dominated by social democratic politics, the introduction of the European Union and the internal market - to today's EU with Josè Manuel Baroso the President of a Commission under a new structure following the Lisbon Treaty and an expanded EU with 27 member states with nearly exclusively conservative governments.  

"This development means the employers have drawn the long straw," says Jørgen Rønnest.

"Today growth and employment, mobility and increased educational input are central issues in European labour markets. At best this is in the interest of employers, while the issues that used to be the main focus of trade unions in the early 1990s - a joint social platform and better rights for employees - play a lesser part," he says.

”It would never happen”

The social dialogue started from scratch in the early 1990s, and many on both sides of the table were very sceptical.

"In 1990 both employers and trade unions said 'let's keep out of this, the social dialogue won't achieve anything'."

Employers considered it to be too risky, while employees felt the dialogue to be empty and meaningless. But what many thought 'would never happen' has happened.

"You could say that again, there aren't many sceptics left. It turned out we could reach agreements and that the agreements could make a difference. To me this has been very exciting," says Jørgen Rønnest, who is also happy to hear EU Commission President Baroso say the contribution from the social partners has been important to the work of finding solutions to the economic crisis. 

Yet he is less enthusiastic when it comes to possible negotiations on the working time directive. 

"Remember this has been debated for 15 years. Over the past five to six years it has been treated by the Commission and in Parliament without any agreement being reached. There is not much chance of anyone coming up with new ideas."

What's the main obstacle?

"There's disagreement on whether the opt out should be removed. That means employers want it to be possible to work for more than 48 hours a week in certain circumstances, while employees feel that exception to the rule must be removed, and that nobody should work more than 48 hours a week - period. That's one of the things we can't agree on."

Career in Business Europe

The Social Affairs Committee formulates Business Europe’s labour market and social policy. Jørgen Rønnest has been an ordinary member representing the Confederation of Danish Employers (DA), acting director for the secretariat at the Social Affairs Department and in 2008 he started a four year stint as head of the Social Affairs Committee. He has a degree in political science and has been part of the social dialogue and negotiations between the social partners since 1995.

The dialogue has shifted its focus in step with social changes. It has moved away from focusing on rights which to a large extent was driven by the desire for harmonisation between the twelve member states, which by today - with 27 member states - seems unrealistic. 

The trade union's position has changed dramatically too. There have been falling membership numbers, problems in Germany's trade union movement after the reunification and a lack of trust in and support for trade unions in former Communist states. According to 'Industrial Relations in Europe 2010' trade union support fell from 27.8 percent in 2000 to 23.4 percent in 2008. That means the loss of some three million members. It's largely a pan-European trend with only Norway bucking the trend with a small increase in trade union membership. The spread and number of employers' organisation members has remained stable.

"There's a conservative wave washing over Europe and this is reflected in the EU Commission's policies too. Today's challenge is to secure growth and increase employment numbers. A prerequisite for this is a well-functioning labour market and increased labour market mobility nationally and internationally."

Mutual dependency

The economic crisis has sparked a political about-turn and acknowledgment throughout Europe that we are all dependent on each other. 

"So if the German economy is doing badly, the Danish economy will do badly. Denmark, for instance, needs to import labour, Danish companies can move abroad and Danes are able to go to Sweden, Norway, Germany or the UK to work. Mobility has become a labour market policy benefit but also an individual benefit. Yet these kinds of cross-border movements are not something a single member state can handle in isolation. Importing labour from third countries is also not something a member state can solve on its own. And when you approach sensitive issues like immigration and integration it is particularly important to have support and back-up from companies and especially from trade unions."

The demographic development is the main future challenge. Europe's labour force will shrink by 50 million workers over the next 40 years.

"And that puts a dramatic break on growth if it is left unchallenged. How do we create a climate where we can solve the demographic challenges faced by the EU as a whole and to different degrees by the individual member states?"

Basic differences

How has your work with the social dialogue affected you?

"My basic belief in finding solutions to existing problems - which I find exciting - remains. But I have learned a lot. First and foremost that the differences between the countries are much larger and much more deep rooted than we think. There's this perception that there are no major differences between labour markets in the Nordic countries. This is an illusion. There are huge differences. The role of trade unions in Denmark, Sweden and Noway differs immensely. Legislation is different. The union membership is different, yet in some way we resemble each other; negotiations represent an important way of finding solutions to problems. 

"There is also a widespread belief that all other countries resemble each other, while my own country is different and has a unique problem. But all countries are different. I believe that is one of the most important things that I have learned."

In order to succeed with the European social dialogue it is necessary to agree on a few basic principles, Jørgen Rønnest thinks. That was the case during the work on the framework agreement on work-related stress.

Agreement was reached that stress could be a result of private and work-related issues, but no matter the cause the employers would take the responsibility to improve things. In return they were free to choose how to do this, since workplaces were very different from each other. 

"It sounds so obvious now, but this was not something we could look up in a book. It was something we developed. We needed to identify what was acceptable to trade unions and what was acceptable to employers.

"We needed to generalise the problems in a way which was attractive to both partners. It will also be necessary to do this if we want to find a solution to the working time directive," predicts Jørgen Rønnest.

The social partners in the European social dialogue
  • Business Europe - the European umbrella organisation for industry and employers' organisations.
  • ETUC - European Trade Union Confederation
  • CEEP - The European Centre of Employers and Enterprises providing Public services
  • UAPME - The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises



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