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The European Labour Authority ELA challenges the Norwegian model

| Text: Björn Lindahl

“If it turns out that Norwegian collective agreements can be overruled by the European Labour Authority, Norway might have to use its veto power in the EEA,” says Marianne Marthinsen, a member of parliament from the Norwegian Labour Party.

Even before it has been established, the European Labour Authority is causing strong emotions in the Nordic region. ELA is part of what is called the European Pillars of Social Rights, and will be set up in 2019. It should be operative by 2023, employing 140 people.

“But so far it is unclear whether the “A” in ELA should stand for Agency or Authority,” pointed out Pål Lund from the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority, during a seminar about ELA organised by the Fafo research foundation in Oslo on 12th November.

EU Commission leader Jean-Claude Juncker is said to have been personally pushing for ELA being called an authority and not just an agency.

The regulation concerning a European labour authority was presented on 12th March this year. A regulation is a binding legal document within the EU. All its details must therefore be followed, and have a direct impact on the whole of the EU – unlike a directive, where it is enough to use national legislation to fulfil its aims.

Since Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein are part of the EEA, the regulation will also be binding there – if none of the countries use their veto power. So far none of them has used this since the EEA was formed in 1994. This is because the EU in that case would end all cooperation in that area. 

Many work in a different member state

In the proposal for the ELA, the Commission writes that 17 million citizens worked in a different member state from their home country in 2017. Postings increased by 68 percent between 2010 and 2016 to 2.3 million. There are also 1.4 million EU citizens who commute to go to work in another EU state and another two million who work in the road transport sector, moving goods and people. 

As a result, there is a great need to coordinate which rules and employment terms should be followed. From a Nordic perspective, there is a lot of interest in the exchange of information which can help prevent work-related crime and social dumping. But this is no longer only about Eastern Europeans going to Western Europe to work. 

“Estonia is experiencing the same issues as Norway, as the country’s labour shortage, due to labour migration, is being topped up with labour from non-EU countries – for instance Ukraine. As a result, Estonia has the same labour market problems as we do, with low wages and bad working conditions,” said Pål Lund, who is a coordinator for international cooperation against social dumping at the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority.

ELA is meant to fulfil three main tasks: 

  • It should provide information on duties and rights linked to cross-border labour and businesses.
  • It should promote cooperation between national labour market authorities. This could be the exchange of information, help during inspections and carrying out joint inspections.
  • It should mediate and resolve disputes where countries cannot agree. It is enough if one of the member countries concerned asks for mediation. 

Joining in the debate about the ELA were Erik Kollerud, recently elected head of the Confederation of Vocational Unions (YS), Jan Olav Andersen, who heads the Electrician and IT workers union and the two MPs Heidi Nordby Lunde (Conservatives) and Marianne Marthinsen (Labour).

Mediation the problem

They all agreed that the third point in the proposal is the problematic one: That ELA should “mediate and resolve disputes”.

“We say no to the establishment of an authority, which we see as a worst-case scenario. For now we are taking wait-and-see approach. The problem is that a body can change with time. We only have one opportunity to say what we think, and that is when the ELA is being established. For us it is entirely out of the question to weaken our current labour market model,” said Jan Olav Andersen from the Electrician and IT workers union. 

Erik Kollerud was more positive:

“In YS, we believe the ELA is needed. We agree on two of the three points. There is a need for more cooperation. The view within the European Trade Union Confederation, ETUC, is that the ELA should not meddle in the cooperation between the social partners,” he said.

No powers of sanction

“The mediation point is obviously a challenge for us. At the same time we want to improve standards in the labour market. The question is: Will the ELA become what we need?” said Heidi Nordby Lunde, who pointed out that even though the proposal says the ELA should resolve labour market disputes, the authority/agency has not been granted any powers of sanction. 

Marianne Marthinsen underlined that it was still too early to know what mandate the ELA would be getting:

“The Commission has already received 975 proposed changes,” she said.

“It is a good thing if the ELA means workers who fall between two chairs when they work in a foreign country get the help they need. We are not worried that there will be an avalanche of new decisions. The important question is whether the Norwegian model will be challenged or not,” she said, and pointed out that in that case a Norwegian veto in the EEA would be expected. 

EEA a hot potato

The issue of Norway’s veto power in the EEA has been a hot political potato within LO several times before. The latest time was when the European postal directive was due to be included in Norwegian legislation. So far during the EEA’s 25 years of existence, no decision has challenged Norway on labour market issues – until now.

In October the final verdict in what is known as “the shipbuilding case” in Norway, was made by Tariffnemnda (the tariff committee). This is a court comprising the parties which decides on labour market disputes.

The Norwegian union’s position was that posted workers should receive the same compensation for travel, food and lodgings that Norwegian workers get. The case went all the way to the Norwegian supreme court, who supported the unions. 

It decided that Norway can only demand that the conditions covering travel, food and lodgings should be equal to those found inside of Norway’s borders. Norwegian trade unions cannot influence the compensation rules for travel to Norway.

The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO) brought the case in front of ESA, which is the court that makes sure the EEA agreement is being upheld – and won. 

The Tariffnemnda took this in account and ruled that Norwegian unions can only make demands about the costs of travel, food and lodgings that are made in Norway – not the costs of travelling to Norway. 

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